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Summitt’s Apex : This Farmer’s Daughter Reaps the Benefits, Reaches Top of Women’s College Basketball World

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She’s a farmer’s daughter, from Henrietta, Tenn.

She can milk cows, plant and harvest tobacco, pitch hay, repair barn doors, weld, fix tractors and fences, split and haul firewood and shovel manure.

Pat Summitt did all that in her childhood and teenage years for her flinty, poker-faced, slow-to-praise father, Richard Head.

And all she really wanted was a hug, maybe a kiss from her father, telling her how much he loved her, how proud he was of her.

For years, she waited.

And while she waited, she became famous.

Last April, Pat Head Summitt finally got her hug . . . but not for any shovel or tractor work. She got it for coaching basketball, and there aren’t many any better at that.

Summitt takes a University of Tennessee women’s team to the postseason national tournament this week for the 20th consecutive season. Eleven times she has reached the Final Four, including last season; three times her Volunteers have won the whole thing (1987, ’89, ’91).

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Tennessee (26-4) plays Radford (17-11) in the first round of the NCAA East Regional on Saturday at Knoxville.

“I was 22 when I came here, and I was coaching four players who were 21,” she said.

“I still had a lot of country in me. I had to have friends coach me to stop saying ‘ain’t’ and ‘naw’ for ‘no.’ ”

She coached the 1984 U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal . . . at about the same time she finally quit saying “ain’t.”

In 22 seasons she has taken a program from a 3,000-seat gym to one that seats 25,000. She also has a 590-133 record.

When the Tennessee men’s coach, Wade Houston, left in 1994, there was speculation Summitt might switch to the men’s program.

She didn’t, much to the dismay of her counterparts in the Southeastern Conference, who have watched Tennessee win the last three postseason SEC tournaments.

When she arrived in Knoxville in 1974, women’s basketball was one peg above the intramural program at Tennessee.

“Truth is, most in the university community weren’t even aware we had a women’s team,” she said recently.

Cain’t miss those Volunteers now.

They’re annually among the NCAA women’s attendance leaders and have averaged about 8,500 this season. Once, they put 24,563 into Thompson/Boling Arena, where the men’s team averages 13,000.

Basketball has given Pat Summitt fame and wealth. She earns a $125,000 base salary, more than the men’s coach, Kevin O’Neill. In Tennessee, she’s recognized everywhere.

Yet through the last 22 years, all she really wanted was a hug and a kind word from her father.

SPINDERELLA

Michelle Marciniak is the flashiest women’s player in the SEC.

She has gone from prep phenom in Allentown, Pa., to a pit stop at Notre Dame, to a storied three-year career at Tennessee.

Marciniak brought a wide-open, full-throttle game to Summitt’s highly structured offense.

Summitt has had to tell her a few hundred times: “Michelle, you just can’t play at 90 mph all the time.”

She leads the SEC in steals, but her trademark is a spin move off the dribble, with her back to the basket.

Early on, writers began calling her Spinderella.

One time, after she’d made a three-point shot, she gave up a layup at the other end.

As she ran back, a furious Summitt reached out and grabbed her by the shirt, her face contorted into a snarl. Summitt yelled.

The next day, the snarling coach appeared on Page 1 of the papers, barking at her cowering, pony-tailed player.

Knoxville writer Brooks Clark dubbed the pair “Spinderella and her Wicked Stepmother.”

Marciniak laughed at the memory.

“She told me if I did that one more time my butt would be on the bench,” she said.

Marciniak describes her coach as tough but fair, and with a concentration so relentless she behaves as though she’s in a trance.

“One time we had a big game coming up and we were waiting for her here, for practice,” Marciniak said.

“She’d had a luncheon someplace. It was a clear day, not a cloud in the sky. We played a trick on her. When she got here, someone said: ‘Pat, is it still raining outside?’

“She got kind of a blank look and said, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

One day in 1991, Summitt had tunnel vision for quite another reason.

She was in Marciniak’s home in Macungie, Pa., on a recruiting visit. She was with her longtime assistant coach, Mickie DeMoss. But it almost became a threesome.

Summit was eight months pregnant, and her water had broken on the charter flight to Allentown. Contractions began as she arrived at Marciniak’s home.

Summitt said, “The contractions were six to seven minutes apart when we got to Michelle’s house. I was in a lot of pain, and I called my doctor from her house twice. Finally, he told me to come back immediately and I said: ‘Michelle, I’m going to have to cut this short. I’m in labor.’ ”

Marciniak said, “I remember Mickie did all the talking, which surprised me. And Pat kept going to the bathroom, and making phone calls.

“When she explained what was going on, I was scared to death. My brother and I drove to the airport and they followed.

“We were going about 90 and going through red lights and stop signs. But neither one of us had ever been to the charter terminal before and we went to the wrong one.

“When we got to the right terminal, there was a lot of confusion. Mickie got on the wrong plane. They had to go get her, then they got her on the right one.”

Summitt said, “We landed in Knoxville, [husband] R.B. and the ambulance were there, and Tyler was born 3 hours 27 minutes later. His head was turned. If it hadn’t been, he’d have been born on the plane.”

After all that, Marciniak signed with Notre Dame, but transferred to Tennessee after one year.

R.B. AND TYLER

Midway through practice in the orange vastness of Thompson/Boling, 5-year-old Tyler Summitt has gone into the floor-level seats with his tomahawk, shouting battle cries.

His mother watches a play but waggles a finger at him, and the battle cries cease.

Next he’s riding an office chair like a skateboard, up and down the sideline.

Another finger waggle.

After practice, the 43-year-old coach brags about her son.

“Another team came in here and had a game-day practice and they weren’t finished when we walked in to practice, so I brought all our people out,” she said.

”. . . Everyone but Tyler. Someone had to go in and find him. He came up to me and said: ‘Mom, they’re running the same stuff you run.’

“Five years old!”

R.B. Summitt, 38, executive vice president of a bank in nearby Sevierville and her husband of 12 years, said they had a long courtship. “Pat had just become the head coach here when we met,” he said.

“I worked for the state bank examiner then, and her roommate worked for us. We had to meet outside the office once to go over some project, a half-dozen of us, so we went to her apartment, all dressed in suits. In the middle of the meeting, in walks Pat. She was dressed in shorts and a tank top.

“I became interested immediately and I’m still interested. It took me 3 1/2 years to convince her that marrying me would not rob her of her independence.”

THE HUG

Recently, R.B. Summitt talked about his wife’s 16th birthday, in 1966.

“Her school friends planned a birthday party for her. She couldn’t go. It was tobacco harvest time. Her dad made her drive a tractor all day, and she did . . . with tears streaming down her face.

“Her Dad is one of these men who is a loving father . . . but he has a very hard time expressing it. He just can’t.”

The hug came on the night of April 2, 1995, in a Minneapolis hotel suite.

Friends, parents, players and family had gathered around Summitt, to console her after a second-half comeback by Connecticut had beaten Tennessee, 70-64, in the NCAA championship game.

Richard Head, 72, approached his daughter.

Finally, he hugged her.

“You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. . . . I’m proud of you,” he said.


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