To the extent that basketball teams may be said to reflect the personalities of their coaches, Joan Bonvicini of Cal State Long Beach and Pat Summitt of Tennessee have created teams in their own images.
Bonvicini was raised on basketball as played on the city playgrounds of the East Coast. Her game is fast and furious. Style is important.
Summitt was raised on basketball as played in barns and driveways of the deep South. Her game is measured and relentless. Execution is important.
What happens when these very different teams coached by Bonvicini and Summitt play today in the final of the women’s National Collegiate Athletic Assn. East Regional will determine which team advances to the Final Four, March 31-April 2 at Tacoma, Wash.
The game at E.A. Diddle Arena on the campus of Western Kentucky University will be televised live on ESPN, beginning at 9 a.m. PST.
Seventh-ranked Long Beach (30-4) has a reputation as the flashiest up-tempo team in women’s basketball. Tennessee (32-2) is No. 2 in the nation and is recognized as the foremost proponent of defensive pressure and patient offense.
The teams played once this season, a game that Tennessee won with ease in Knoxville, 88-74. Circumstances for both teams have changed since then, but their styles have not.
And this week, an odd coincidence occurred. With the resignation of Tennessee’s men’s coach, Don DeVoe, two state newspapers called for Summitt to be considered for the position. Bonvicini had a similar experience when the men’s job opened at Long Beach a few years ago.
Although the seriousness of the suggestions may be questioned, there is no question that both Bonvicini and Summitt have emerged as two of the brightest coaches in the game.
Joan Bonvicini grew up in a working-class Italian neighborhood of Bridgeport, Conn., as one of five children. Her father, Tom, was a good athlete and encouraged his children to participate in sports.
When she was very young, Bonvicini played baseball and softball, eventually playing for the Raybestos Brakettes, a longtime national power in women’s amateur softball.
“I really loved basketball,” Bonvicini said. “I went to 12 years of parochial school because the public schools were so rough, and also because only the Catholic schools had basketball teams. I’ll never forget playing in those pleated skirts. I’ll tell you, you have to be pretty good to play basketball in a skirt.”
At Southern Connecticut State College, Bonvicini was a flashy player who led her team to postseason play three times.
The summer after her senior year, she was invited to play in a women’s summer league in Los Angeles. Bonvicini took in a few weeks of the Southern California sun and returned to Connecticut--to pack.
She flew to L.A.--her father wouldn’t allow her to drive--with $300 and a promise of a room to rent for $50 a month.
Bonvicini eventually took a job as an assistant at Long Beach and decided to coach full-time. She quit a $20,000 job as a computer programmer to make $7,000 a year as a coach.
“I didn’t care about the money,” she said. “I loved the job. My family was not too thrilled.”
Once she became head coach, Bonvicini instilled in her team her own passion for a run-and-gun style.
“Coming from the city-style of basketball, that’s what I like,” she said. “I’ve always wanted my guards to be aggressive, to be jumping on people’s backs. I want my team to be unpredictable. I like to be the aggressor. People say that as a coach, I’ll go for the jugular. It’s true. I want to put the other team in a hole.”
Fine talk from the past president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Assn. But for Bonvicini, who learned the lessons of competition on tough city playgrounds, it’s what she knows.
Pat Head Summitt grew up on a dairy farm 17 miles outside Henrietta, Tenn. Although she always played sports, the variety was limited to whatever fields and barns were available.
“We didn’t have the opportunity to play much of anything when I was growing up,” she said. “We played basketball in the hayloft. It’s not like there were tennis courts and things like that.”
She grew into a star basketball player for Cheatham County High School, the kind of player that people remembered. Especially country people.
“Country people are really family oriented,” she said. “It’s not like the hustle-bustle city life, it’s the slow-paced farm life. We are all together. Even if your next neighbor is three-four miles down the road, if you had to borrow a cup of sugar, you knew you could. I did that a few times.”
Summitt played basketball at the University of Tennessee Martin and was co-captain of the U.S. Olympic team that won a silver medal in 1976. She coached the 1984 Olympic team to a gold medal in Los Angeles.
Summitt met her future husband at a party given by her roommate, a party intended to get Pat together with a certain bank examiner. During the party, R.B. Summitt, also a bank examiner but not the bank examiner, moved in and introduced himself.
Pat had just returned from helping UCLA Coach Billie Moore with a training camp in Los Angeles.
“You could say she kind of stood out,” R.B. Summitt said. “Here we were in our suits and here’s Pat in her shorts and her tan.”
That was April 18, 1977. They were later married and both their careers changed. Pat became head coach at Tennessee, where she is in her 15th season. R.B. stopped examining banks and began to own them. He is said to be one of the wealthiest men in Tennessee.
Summitt, 36, has recruited a team filled with hard-working country kids, similar to all her teams. Asked what traits of hers are also characteristic of her team, Summitt considered and then said, “Intensity, competitiveness . . . they don’t like to lose.”
Sounds a lot like Long Beach.