The tale has been told and retold many times, a surviving memory of the struggle, a reminder of how far the program has come. But its early August, and Holly Warlick is on the phone from Knoxville, trying to explain Tennessee womens basketball to an outsider. So she tells the story one more time.
By RUSTIN DODD
The Kansas City Star
Warlick is the head basketball coach at Tennessee now, taking over for the legendary Pat Summitt in April. But nearly 35 years ago, she was just a point guard, suiting up for Summit in her home state of Tennessee.
One season, Warlick says, Summitt took her team down to Baton Rouge to play LSU. The Vols were set to play the first game in a doubleheader with the men, but the womens game went into overtime, and LSU coach Dale Brown insisted that the women move to the auxiliary gym so the men could start on time.
Summit, still in her formative years as a coach, refused to budge. The women werent going anywhere. So right there, on the floor at LSU, the parties came to a compromise.
They made the clock a running clock, Warlick says.
Its stories like this, Warlick says, that provide a foundation for the Tennessee story how Summitt turned a fledgling womens basketball program into one of the most successful brands in American sports.
In the land of Rocky Top and the Pride of the Southland Band, the place where Brigadier General Robert Neyland coached and quarterback Peyton Manning starred, where 102,000 fans cram into Neyland Stadium, a young woman from Clarksville built something that even the good ol boys could love.
In 38 years, Summitt and Tennessee won eight national titles and an NCAA-record 1,098 games. And in the heart of football country, where accents are thick and traditions clearly Southern, womens sports became a cause célèbre. The Vols, with Summitt as the matriarch, became a pioneering force for good.
From the very beginning, she wanted to promote womens sports and womens basketball, says Mickey Dearstone, the longtime radio voice of the Vols. In the conference and across the country, she always said: I dont want to take anything away from mens sports; we just want our share.
The Summitt stories are legend in Rocky Top. Theres the famous tale, chronicled in a 1998 Sports Illustrated story, of Summitt going into labor during an in-home recruiting visit to see future Tennessee star Michelle Marciniak. There are the titles, of course, eight of them, spread out from 1987 to 2008.
And theres the time in 2007, when Summitt donned a cheerleader outfit at a mens game, a thank-you to Tennessee mens coach Bruce Pearl, who painted his chest at a Vols game. It was also a reminder: Summitt was never opposed to promoting the womens game, never shy about building a brand and reaching out to more young girls.
She changed the culture of girls basketball in the state, Dearstone says, mentioning that before Summitt, the high schools in the state still played with rules that forced girls to stay in only one half of the court.
Now the program is at a crossroads. Its creator and leader is gone. One year ago, on Aug. 22, 2011, Summitt shocked the program and the college sports landscape by revealing that she had early onset dementia, Alzheimers type.
In the ensuing weeks, the program rallied, former players rushing to be by their old coachs side. Summitt remained steadfast and strong. At age 59, she was determined to keep coaching. And she would, leading the Vols to an appearance in the Elite Eight while Warlick, a longtime assistant, took on a more active daily role.
But in April, after Tennessees loss to eventual national champion Baylor in the Elite Eight, Summitt made it official: She was stepping aside.
After Summitts retirement on the 40th anniversary of Title IX the Tennessee community came together to reflect.
She has been a pioneer in opening doors for women in so many areas, said former Vol and current LSU coach Nikki Caldwell.
These days, the Summitt effect can be seen throughout the rest of the conference and the country. According to numbers from the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, the number of women in college athletics has increased from 29,997 in 1971-72 to 193,232 in 2010-11.
At one point at Tennessee, Dearstone says, Summitt famously lobbied for more funding from the school president, even as the president was protesting that shed overspent her budget by $400.
Soon, though, Summitts Vols were selling out and hanging banners, and school presidents across the Southeast took notice.
Tennessee made a huge commitment to womens athletics at an early stage, when we first started, Warlick says. And Pat put together a team that was fun to watch.
In the Southeast, the tradition continues. This fall, as the Missouri womens programs enter the SEC, they will find themselves in a conference that won national titles in softball, womens golf, womens tennis, track and field and gymnastics in 2011-12.
For Warlick, the bar has been set. The ultimate goal is still the same: Find a way to win the programs ninth national title. Warlick, however, is not going it alone.
On many days, she says, Summitt will still be around practice still serving as a mentor and teacher to the young women who arrive in Knoxville.
Were still Tennessee basketball, Warlick says. And we sell tradition. And tradition doesnt happen by mistake. You build it, you use it. And as Pat has stepped down, this program is still important to a lot of people. And were still selling Tennessee basketball.
To reach Rustin Dodd, send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/rustindodd.