Summitt One Shy of 1,000
Jan. 30, 2009
(AP) - Back when Pat Summitt was 22 years old, driving the van to road games, doing the team laundry and guiding her Lady Vols in front of a few dozen fans, her ambition was just to make a career in coaching.
To say she reached her goal doesn't even begin to cover it.
Tennessee's next victory will be No. 1,000 for Summitt - a number no college basketball coach has ever achieved. It could come Monday night at Oklahoma.
"I never thought about it. I never focused on numbers," said Summitt, who won her first game on Jan. 10, 1975, against Middle Tennessee State. "I've always tried to get teams ready every year and win every game we can possibly win."
To get an idea how amazing Summitt's achievement is, consider that no Division I women's team other than her Lady Vols has 1,000 wins, let alone a single coach. Second place goes to retired Texas coach Jody Conradt at 900.
On the men's side, Bob Knight finished his storied coaching career with 902 victories. Only six NBA coaches have hit 1,000 wins - and they play twice as many games a season as Summitt's teams.
"It's a pretty amazing number even for me. I'm like, 'Wow,"' Summitt said. "Have I really been doing this for 35 years and where did the time go? I think about all the players that wore the orange uniform and made a commitment to winning."
Now 56, her coaching achievements extend much further than just victories. She has 70 former players, assistant coaches, operations directors, graduate assistants or team managers coaching basketball.
However, none of her proteges will likely come close to reaching their mentor's win total.
With coaches no longer getting started at such an early age, it's going to be difficult for anyone to ever catch her. Former Tennessee assistant coach Nikki Caldwell, who took over as UCLA's head coach this season would have to average 25 wins over the next 40 years to reach the milestone.
"Coach always says she got the job when she was 10," said Caldwell, laughing. "I can't see myself doing it that long. The thing about Pat getting there is that she is playing the toughest teams year in and year out."
That's true. Over 400 of her victories have come against ranked teams. It's fitting that the second-ranked Sooners are up next.
"There's no way you can even begin to comprehend what 1,000 wins is for a college basketball coach," Tennessee men's coach Bruce Pearl said. "You could understand it for an NBA coach because of how many games they play. But this is unprecedented stuff. These are records that will never be touched. Records are meant to be broken, but will we ever see another college basketball coach win 1,000? Not the way we hire and fire coaches these days."
Kara Lawson, who played at Tennessee and is now on the Sacramento Monarchs, remembers the first time Summitt came to her house on a recruiting visit.
"She was sitting next to my mom but in between them was a lamp on the table. She moved the lamp back so that she could see my mom," Lawson said. "I think that lamp hadn't moved for like 15 years."
Her peers are amazed at Summitt's success.
"She's the only one - male or female," said Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, who is third on the women's victory list with 816. "That's pretty special and says a lot. That's something she'll always have and I can't think of a more deserving person."
Adds Pat Riley, who won 1,210 games with the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, and Miami Heat: "She's respected by all her peers, both men and women, as being just an extremely great coach and probably one of the greatest coaches of all time, men or women."
Yes, it's possible that a few more women's coaches could reach the 1,000 milestone by the time their careers are over. Sylvia Hatchell of North Carolina also has 800 victories. And, of course, there is Summitt's nemesis, UConn's Geno Auriemma. He'll most likely reach the 700-win plateau next season.
But no one will likely catch Summitt's final win total, whatever it may be. She still has plenty of years left in her coaching career.
"It's mind-boggling that a coach can win 1,000 games let alone coach 1,000 games at the level she does it at," Lawson said. "I don't think it's going to be done again even though records are meant to be broken."
Lawson is one of the many great players to have gone through Tennessee under Summitt. The Hall of Fame coach consistently attracts the best talent across the country, including former stars Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker.
"She's an amazing coach," said Parker, who helped Tennessee win two national championships and was named 2008 female athlete of the year by The Associated Press. "She brings out the best in you and makes you a better player by the time you leave."
As partly evidenced by the AP award, Summitt's greatest achievement has been the national attention she's brought to the women's game. When she first started coaching - pretty much as a volunteer while she prepared to play in the Olympics - few games were ever on television. Now it's easy to turn on the television and find a women's game on some channel.
"When I think about getting to 1,000 wins, I think about the University of Tennessee saying yes to women's basketball long before it was a popular thing to do," Summitt said.
The Lady Vols' rivalry with Connecticut over the past 15 years drew some of the highest ratings ever for a women's game. About the only blemish on her unbelievable career might be letting that series end last season for reasons which still have not been revealed.
Even playing against their archrivals, Summitt would draw huge ovations from the Connecticut crowd as fans across the nation respected her and what she had accomplished.
"Whenever we played in the SEC we always would see everyone from that school would be at that game," Lawson said. "I'd talk to guys in the NBA now, and they'd say 'We watched you when you'd come to Florida, Alabama, Kentucky. We didn't go to many games, we always came to Tennessee games."'
With all the wins and accolades, Summitt is still most happy just coaching and teaching.
"She taught us that being a lady and a wonderful person is way more important than anything that you accomplish on the basketball court," Catchings said. "Pat wanted all of us to be successful women, and have more character and class about ourselves than anything."
To that end Summitt already has more wins than even she could imagine.