Posted on April 11, 2008
It has been a great year for Tennessee basketball fans. Four teams participated in the NCAA Women’s Tournament – East Tennessee State University, Vanderbilt, the University of Tennessee Chattanooga and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. In the NCAA Men’s Tournament, five Tennessee teams competed – Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Memphis, Austin Peay and Belmont. These nine tournament teams attest to the great athletics we have in our state. Tennesseans were treated to some great basketball in the men’s tournament. Although there is sorrow in our Bluff City on the Mississippi River and across Tennessee because the noble University of Memphis Tigers lost to Kansas in the finals of the NCAA National Championship basketball tournament, there is also reason for great pride. The ebullient John Calipari and his team gave Memphis a new source of pride and the sport a season to remember, winning more games than any college basketball team ever has. Years from now, fans will be talking about the magical Douglas-Roberts, the indomitable Dorsey, the explosive Rose, the ubiquitous Anderson, the reliable Dozier and the super-sub Taggart. They have given fans a great year. They have helped to unify our largest city. They should hold their heads high as we look toward next year. This season was capped off by the University of Tennessee Lady Vols winning their eighth NCAA women's basketball championship. They defeated an extraordinarily good Stanford team. The Tennessee team has very good players, including Candace Parker from Illinois. She may very well be the best woman college basketball player already. The day after the championship game, she became the first pick in the WNBA draft. Even though there were extraordinary players, this story is about an extraordinary coach as well. Pat Summitt has won national championships so often, she has made it look easy. This is the second year in a row Coach Summit’s Lady Vols won the championships. She is the nation's all-time winningest NCAA basketball coach among men's and women's teams. This is a remarkable achievement. In her 34 years, Pat Summitt has defined women’s basketball: from her spaghetti suppers for visiting players, her encouraging other coaches, and her patience with the news media. She has shown her willingness to change, visiting with Phil Jackson about what offense to put in. She’s also shown her ability to adapt to and overcome challenges, like when her superstar, the young woman from Illinois, Candace Parker, was injured and played her last two games with a dislocated shoulder. What I like best about the Lady Vols is not their winning streak over the years – it is the example they set on and off the court. When I was president of the University of Tennessee, which was 15 or so years ago, I would proudly tell everyone that Pat Summitt and her teams have not only won championships, but their players graduated. It was true then and I believe it is true today that every single young woman who has played basketball for Pat Summitt for 4 years has graduated from the University of Tennessee. Pat Summitt not only requires them to go to class, she says: You go to class and you sit in the front row. I want the professors to know you are there. Just a glimpse of Coach Summitt and her young players on national television is the best possible advertisement for the University of Tennessee that I can imagine. If Pat Summitt were the conductor of a symphony, one would say she has mastered the crescendo because she always plays the toughest schedule, but somehow she has learned as a coach to get the most out of her team, to have them playing the best as they get to the NCAA tournament, as they get to the Final Four, and as they get to the championship game, as they have so often. As a Tennessean, I have taken great pride in the achievements of Tennessee’s college student-athletes on and off the basketball court. It has been a great year for basketball in our state. Congratulations for all the Tennessee teams who participated in “March Madness.” Congratulations to the Memphis Tigers for setting the record for most wins in a single season. And congratulations to the Lady Vols for winning their eighth national championship. I am already excited about our state’s basketball prospects for next year.