When Pat Summitt was announced the winner of the Maggie Dixon Courage Award on Sunday, nearly everyone inside Madison Square Garden gave a standing ovation to the Tennessee basketball coaching icon. This included the coaches and players competing on the court, who broke from their in-game huddles to acknowledge Summitt. Baylor coach Kim Mulkey and star player Brittney Griner each gave Summitt a hug before she walked off the court.
“If I see her, I’m going to hug her. I hugged her and told her I loved her,” said Mulkey, who called Summitt the “John Wooden of women’s basketball.”
The connection Summitt has with the Tennessee fan base is unlike any other in women’s basketball and has few rivals across all sports. Consider Joe Paterno, pre-scandal. As beloved as Joe Pa was at Penn State, when his teams suffered several disappointing seasons in the early 2000s even some of his major supporters decided it was time for the legendary coach to retire. Once Penn State got back on track, many still wanted Paterno gone, since, at least to those watching on Saturdays, he was no longer running the team.
Summitt, 59, announced before the start of this season that she has early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, a condition which affects her memory and, to a certain extent, her ability to coach on a daily basis. But good luck finding anyone who thinks Summitt should step down at Tennessee or criticizes her for maintaining the head coach title despite delegating more to her assistants.
The scene at the Garden for the Maggie Dixon Classic (which pitted Baylor against St. John’s for an 11:00 a.m. tip and Tennessee and DePaul in the later game) proved the love for Summitt extends beyond Knoxville and the Tennessee basketball community. Probably 75% of the announced crowd of 5,486 (a high estimate) were Tennessee fans, many wearing orange “We Back Pat” t-shirts.
“We have so much support, even from other teams,” said Tennessee starting forward Glory Johnson, who led the No. 7 Lady Volunteers to an 84-61 victory over No. 20 DePaul. “Other teams have worn the ‘We Back Pat’ shirts when we play them. There are so many people that are supporting Pat and the cause itself. We are playing for everyone with the disease.”
|Holly Warlick (middle), joined by Glory Johnson (right), talks about Pat Summitt.|
Make no mistake about it, Summitt is still the leader of the Lady Vols. “Pat Summitt is the coach at the University of Tennessee,” said associate head coach Holly Warlick, who handles post-game media responsibilities. “She has put the assistants in a unique situation over the past few years where she has allowed us to do the things we’re best at. A sign of a great leader is to have a tremendous amount of support. She relies on her support and the assistant coaches.
“When we heard the diagnosis we were upset, but we knew we were going to continue to do what we’ve been doing. It has been maybe a little bit different. But she’s still my boss and she reminds me of that. She is still leading us.”
Baylor Athletics on the Rise
No college had a more impressive weekend than Baylor University, the 14,900-student private Christian school in Waco, Texas. Baylor Nation took the Big Apple by storm as quarterback Robert Griffin III was presented the school’s first Heisman Trophy Saturday night in a theater near Times Square, and the top-ranked Lady Bears basketball team stomped St. John’s, 73-59, in the Garden on Sunday morning.
Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey, unprovoked, was quick to point out her school’s place in college athletics. “I’m so happy for Baylor University. The so-called experts need to quit talking about what can’t be done at Baylor. I listened for a month to them saying Robert Griffin can’t win the Heisman. Now we’ve got a Heisman trophy winner at Baylor. We’ve got the player of the year in women’s basketball at Baylor. We’ve got two top draft picks on the men’s team at Baylor. We’ve got the best softball pitcher in the country at Baylor. We’ve been to every NCAA tournament across the board at Baylor.
“This is not the Baylor of old. This is a commitment by our administration to hire the best coaches and to bring teams to the university that will compete at the highest level.”
Aside from a few misinformed analysts at ESPN, it seemed pretty clear in the week leading up to the Heisman ceremony that Griffin had won the award. Those doubts were officially squelched when Griffin beat out his competitors from more established football programs. Now RG3 can move on to a bigger obstacle: challenging Griner to a dunk contest. According to Mulkey, the quarterback has been begging her since Griner stepped on campus, but the coach would prefer if it took place after Griner graduated.
The similarities between the two Baylor stars—the most recognizable people on campus—extend beyond their dominant play. “Robert is everything that is good about college athletics,” Mulkey said. “He’s everywhere on campus. Don’t be surprised if he comes back to school [and forgoes the chance at millions in the NFL]. That’s the kind of kid he is. He would have been here today, sitting right behind the bench like he does at home, if it wasn’t for his other obligations.”
|Brittney Griner shoots a free throw against St. John’s in the Maggie Dixon Classic.|
Like Griffin, Griner is a fan magnet. During the Tennessee-DePaul game, Griner hung out behind one of the baskets, signing autographs and posing for pictures for about 20 minutes. Every young girl at the Garden wanted a piece of her, and Griner was happy to oblige.
The 6’8” All-American will be in the national spotlight tonight when Baylor hosts No. 2 Connecticut (8:30 EST, ESPN). “It’s a game that’s been highlighted on my calendar,” Griner said. “Who wouldn’t be happy to play in a game 1 vs 2? And at home, in front of all our fans, there’s nothing like it.”