Commentary

Plaza honors legendary coach

Fans flock from near and far for Friday's dedication of Pat Summitt Plaza

Updated: November 22, 2013, 10:49 PM ET
By Maria M. Cornelius | Special to espnW.com

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Two Lady Vols fans staked out positions against the guardrail for a front-row view of Pat Summitt.

Tanya Llano, who has followed Tennessee's women's basketball team since the 1970s, has been here dozens of times. The 65-year-old regularly makes the 700-mile commute from Georgia to Knoxville in her SUV for home games but also is a fixture at the Lady Vols' away games and always attends their games in the SEC and NCAA tournaments.

[+] EnlargeSummitt & Catchings
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsDozens of former players, including Tamika Catchings, right, were on hand for Friday's dedication.

Clara DuJardin, 69, sat in a wheelchair, enjoying her first trip to Knoxville just to see the unveiling of Summitt's statue. DuJardin, who made the trip from Portland, Ind., with three other women, arrived 2 ½ hours early to claim her spot Friday outside the athletic complex of Thompson-Boling Arena and Pratt Pavilion, both of which Summitt's statue will watch in perpetuity. DuJardin's wheelchair was set up a few feet from the intersection of Phillip Fulmer Way and Chamique Holdsclaw Drive for an unblocked view of the newly dedicated Pat Summitt Plaza.

"I've watched her ever since she was a coach," DuJardin said. As the plaza will remind visitors from this point on, that's a long time. Behind the statue, Summitt's signature -- backlit with a purple hue, a poignant nod to the color for Alzheimer's awareness -- hangs on a concrete wall, with the words "Head Coach 1974-2012, Record 1,098-208, 8 National Championships."

A rainstorm moved through Knoxville early Friday as hundreds gathered for the 11 a.m. dedication ceremony. The rain stopped before the dedication began but started again just as media were finishing interviews with former Lady Vols Michelle Marciniak and Tamika Catchings. By then, Summitt was inside Pratt Pavilion to watch practice and visit with the dozens of players, family, friends and coaches who made the trip to Knoxville.

"I knew [the rain] would stop," Marciniak said. "She just has a really special way. Really great things happen when she touches them."

Women's basketball legends Billie Moore, who was Summitt's Olympic coach, and Jody Conradt, a longtime coaching rival at Texas and one of Summitt's closest friends, also were in attendance.

[+] EnlargeClara Dujardin
Courtesy of Maria M. CorneliusClara DuJardin, front left, made her first trip to Knoxville from Indiana just for Friday's dedication.

"When you're in a competitive business and you're playing to win and you have people on the other sideline that you want to beat, that's one thing, but when the game is over we all share a bond, a friendship," Conradt said. "Pat has been one of the most consistent people to give back and to share. I feel very blessed to be a benefactor of that."

Fans filled the areas behind the guardrails on the plaza's street corner, and more watched from the parking lot above and from the ramps of the arena. Knoxville police shut down the two streets on the busy campus, and Moore and Conradt sat in a packed area of dignitaries that included Tennessee football coach Butch Jones, former coach Phillip Fulmer and Pilot Corporation founder Jim Haslam, a major benefactor for Tennessee and longtime Summitt friend.

Dave Hart, Tennessee's athletic director, opened the ceremony by noting it would unveil "a beautiful statue of a beautiful woman."

In true Summitt fashion, she didn't walk alone. Instead, she brought her team of players, coaches and staff. They crossed the street behind Summitt and lined the back wall of the plaza, at times cheering and other times wiping away tears.

Catchings was selected to represent the players in official remarks during the ceremony. Her voice cracked once, but she said she held it together for Summitt.

[+] EnlargeSummitt Statue Unveiling
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsIsabelle Harrison, Tennessee's 6-foot-3 junior center, had to assist in the unveiling of the nearly 9-foot tall statue.

"We just want to say thank you for all that you've done, thank you for all that you've given all of us, thank you for just the joy," Catchings said. "This is amazing. This is awesome to look out and see all these people that are here for you. So thank you Pat, thank you for everything. I love you."

Tyler Summitt, who is in his second season as an assistant coach for the Marquette women, credited his mother for instilling in him that "every moment is a teaching moment."

"I want to reflect on what I know makes Mom smile and light up more than anything," he said. "It is when she sees that when something she taught helped somebody else. This past weekend we went to Vanderbilt, and it made her happy that we won.

"As we were there with the Marquette team I told her that this happened because of you. I used what you taught me to make this happen. I saw her light up more than anything."

Tyler then escorted his mother to the podium, and as she turned to speak, everyone in attendance came to their feet, even the photographers who spilled out of the official photo well and lined one side of the plaza.

"Today is not about me," Summitt said. "It is about everyone out here that loves the University of Tennessee. I just hope and pray that we can continue to do great things. ...

"I want everybody to know how much I appreciate what has happened here today. I don't think I will ever forget it. I love you all."

Summitt's signature that is affixed to the wall of the plaza weighs 1,000 pounds. The bronze statue, created by 86-year-old David Adickes, a Tennessee alum, is 8 feet, 7 inches tall and weighs 500 pounds. Although the coach is perhaps best known for her steely stare, the statue features a smiling Summitt.

"They've got her smiling," Tyler Summitt said. "I don't know if that's an accurate representation of her coaching career, but it's great and she loved it, so I loved it."

[+] EnlargePat Summitt
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsThe 500-pound, 8-foot-7 bronze statue looms almost as large as Pat Summitt's legacy.

Crews worked seven days a week and around the clock to get the plaza ready for the dedication date. Some 600 donors provided financial support for the plaza.

"We had some very significant donors step up and say that we will get this done," UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek said. "Then, once that was done, we had to spend time with the contractor. We got the contractor tracked out and told him that we had to have it done by this date."

A little utility work remains to be done. Two power and red light poles will be moved so the view is completely unobstructed. The plaza will be highly visible because the intersection is one of the main entrances to campus, especially to the sports facilities.

"This is what most people will see when they enter this campus, the welcoming she's given all of us and her legacy here," Catchings said.

Llano will continue to make her regular trips to Knoxville, so she will see the statue every time she comes to campus. Her support for the Lady Vols hasn't wavered, and her appreciation for Summitt will never end.

"Pat is someone who teaches more than basketball skills. She teaches life skills and how to succeed in life after basketball," Llano said. "Pat has always made me feel a part of the Lady Vols family. I can't begin to express in words what it all means. It was very special and a well-deserved dedication and tribute to a special person."

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