Why Pat Summitt is an original
Geno Auriemma and Bob Knight, legendary coaches in their own right, offer their perspectives on another legend, Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in NCAA Division I history (men or women). The Nine for IX film on Summitt, "Pat XO," airs July 9 on ESPN (8 p.m. ET).
Pat Summitt and I looked at the game of basketball differently, no question. I think part of what made our games and the rivalry between Connecticut and Tennessee great was that there was such a contrast of styles, that we did have a different view of how the game was going to be played. My view was a result of my background and playing and coaching, just like Pat's view was a reflection of her background and what she believed in.
Huge player recruiting battles between us and Tennessee were very rare because, in the end, the players who went to Tennessee and the players who went to Connecticut really didn't have a whole lot in common, other than they were good players. That's not to say every player who ever played here was different than the kids at Tennessee or vice versa, because there were some who could have crossed over easily. But we recruited a certain kind of kid, a certain kind of player who made Connecticut successful, and they recruited a certain kind of kid, a certain kind of player who made them successful. In my mind, that's just another part of what made the games so great -- there was that stark difference.
When I got the head-coaching job at Connecticut in 1985, I certainly wasn't thinking about Tennessee at all. I was thinking more about the teams in our league that we had to beat. It wasn't until we went to our first Final Four in 1991 that I was able to be in the same environment as Tennessee and the other top teams at that time and see firsthand how they played and what it was going to take to beat them.
It was clear to me that you could either try to do it exactly the way they did it, or you could do it your way.
I think that's the secret of really good coaching -- to take what you believe in and transfer that to your players. It's not so much what you know as a basketball coach, it's what you can teach your players. Do you have a philosophy? Do you have a style of play? And do you believe in it passionately enough that your players buy into it 100 percent and they go and execute it? That's what Tennessee did so well, and did more than any other team we played against. That was Pat's philosophy, that was her style, that was her passion, and her teams played like that. That's what good coaching is. You can have everything in your arsenal -- you can be the smartest person in the world, you can be the greatest motivator, the best recruiter, but if you can't teach your players to do the things that you want done, it doesn't matter what you know.
Pat got her players to buy in and play the exact style she wanted them to play. That's great coaching.
What came across to me the first three or four times we played Tennessee was that this was the one game every year when, if we didn't play our A-game, we were going to lose. There was maybe no other game during the course of the year that was like that. Look, there are games during the season where if you don't play well you are still going to win. By the same token, we also said that if we played our A-game, it doesn't matter what they do, we're going to win. They probably said the same thing.
That became the measuring stick. We're going to play Tennessee and we're going to see where we stand. All the other games leading up to that and after that, they were big and important, but none of them compared to the Tennessee games. It was because of the great players. It was because the basketball itself was memorable. It was because there was always something at stake. It was all of those things. I don't think that's necessarily received enough attention. The attention has been pretty much all on the relationship between me and Pat.
I was asked what observing Pat's experiences, her announcement two years ago and stepping down last year, led me to think about. I think when you get to be our age, and I'm 59, a lot of people I went to school with or had personal or professional relationships with, have had health issues in the past 10 years. And you can't help but start to think, "OK, well, I'm not immune from it." Everybody is going to have to deal with it at some point. When it happens to someone you're connected to, whether it's a coach, or a person you're on the board of directors with, or someone you just play golf with or a family member, you start to think, "All right, what's the goal here?"
Connecticut has eight national championships. So does Pat. If you're sitting there winning national championships and you don't have your health, those titles won't get you healthier. You do start to think about that -- basketball is one side of your life and then there is a whole other side that has nothing to do with the sport. And I don't know [that] the two can stay related forever. At some point, the basketball stuff has to go away and your other life takes over. As you get to be my age, that time is sooner rather than later.
If I'm linked to Pat, that's not a bad person to be linked with, right? In any era, if you're the only one that's any good, then the era becomes "Yeah, you were the best of the worst." Everyone else was mediocre and you were really good. I don't know if that is what makes something stand the test of time. Something stands the test of time because there was somebody else, like Tennessee was for Connecticut and Connecticut was for Tennessee, who made it matter just that little bit more, like Duke and North Carolina, Auburn and Alabama or Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
There is someone who pushes you to be better or achieve things you don't know you could have achieved on your own. I like to think Pat and I did that for each other.
I'm not the most patient guy.
But Pat Summitt peppered me and Fred Taylor with questions every single day as we ate lunch while we were all coaching in the 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico. I can't remember all the details of exactly what we discussed more than three decades ago, but if they'd been dumb questions, I wouldn't have answered them.
Pat was only 27 years old at the time, but she was inquisitive and polite. She was very bright and had an intense desire to be a good coach and have good teams. She wanted to learn everything she could about the game. Coach Taylor and I respected Pat, were impressed by her and enjoyed her confidence.
Coach Taylor, my college coach at Ohio State, and I knew then that Summitt was going to be a good coach and she was going to be a big factor in women's basketball. But she has been a very valuable person in the development of the sport -- not women's basketball or kids' basketball -- but basketball as a whole.
As the years went by, Pat piled on the victories. She worked harder than other people and had a very focused approach in what she was doing and what she wanted. People who are successful often have a tendency to lose an edge as they move through life and whatever their occupation might be. Pat just got stronger and stronger, and the result was eight national championships and 1,098 career victories. Tennessee came back and won again and again. She maintained as high a level of play with her team as anyone who has ever coached the game.
Pat's teams were always good. She held her players accountable for their actions and performances. They played well because she expected them to take what they worked on in practice and utilize it in games.
As a coach, you want to win. Pat did that. But, across the board with her kids, she also prepared them for life after basketball. Her kids probably had the best situation -- of any group of players at the college level, male or female -- for learning what life would be all about. Through what they had learned through her practices and games, Pat's players were ready to go out and be successful beyond basketball. I'm sure she has a tremendous feeling of pride in what her players have accomplished in basketball and whatever endeavors they've gone into. Not many people have prepared their players that well for life.
Through it all, Pat has been a tough lady. From the start, she had her mind made up about what she wanted and went after it. She has also always been a very classy person. She went about her business as well as anyone who has ever coached the sport.
I appreciate the opportunity to talk about her because she has been such a valuable person in the development of the game. And I have a real admiration for the way she went about her career.