Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Friday, July 01, 2016

On the Passing of Pat Summitt: Guru Recalls Years With the Legend, Part 2

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

First,  thanks to the many of you who sent notes on Part 1. 

Someone asked in the last few days how long it took to write the obituary on Tennessee coach emeritus Pat Summitt in The Inquirer and the answer is over 40 years but it was simply a matter of downloading the memories in the brain onto the iPad and then send to the office..

As for Part 1 here on the Guru’s blog, I felt in I was in uncharted waters just getting that together but I thought it was one way of sharing what I saw through the last five years but at different intervals as opposed to those around Pat a large amount of time.

Over the last few days I feel Pat has been Finally freed  from the physical burden of carrying the fight and through the flood of photos from her era and the tributes from the thousands of lives she touched on and off the court she has become a living presence in our memories.

In running the USBWA women’s awards one of the nuances I have placed in the presentations is some DNA from Tennessee and Pat would always be on the podium as part of the ceremony.. 

Holly Warlick, her Tennessee successor, accepted the first one on behalf of Pat, followed the next two years by her son Tyler, who was terrific, and then last April in Indianapolis, Michelle Brooke-Marciniak, who also was wonderful.

Once media began to pay some attention to women’s basketball Pat in achieving success drew attention to become the lighted beacon on a hill. The man in the street may not know what was below but as per my experience outside the women’s world, he or she knew Pat.

Answer a question at a bar or in some social setting and explain what I did, and the quick response would be, “So do you know Pat Summitt, personally? What’s she really like? Is she that stern?”

The fact that the obituary I wrote on her for The Inquirer on the same day that former NFL Eagles coach Buddy Ryan passed away overcame the coverage of him, or so I’ve been told, tells you all you want to know about her reach.

Following the party she threw in 2007 at her pool house heading into my induction class’s ceremony in Knoxville at the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, my nieces back home would make points with their dates saying they met Pat Summitt.

When I called well before we got to that weekend – two Tennessee players were also being inducted in my class – I joked that since she claimed I had a role in her achieving the salary she received, it was time to get some pay back.

Just tell me how many people you have coming, she responded afterI heard her chuckle.

Before things really got testy between her and UConn coach Geno Auriemma, I told people that their pre-game antics were on the scale of televised wrestling.

Away from the public bluster there was a profound respect for each other.

For example, I was in Knoxville on the day Auriemma was named an assistant to the 2000 USA team for the games in Sydney, Australia.

Seeing Pat later that day, she came over and said, “Hey, have you talked to Geno? Is he excited to get the job?”

There were two times things took a downturn prior to her ending the series, which by the way became public the same weekend as my being in Knoxville for the 2007 induction.

During the preview press conference for the NCAA championship Jere Longman, a former sportswriter at The Inquirer now at the New York Times, asked Auriemma did he find it cosmic that the two best known Cheesesteak places were Pat’s and Geno’s.

He quickly responded, noting how one was very new and glitzy (Geno’s) and one very old and dilapidated.

In 2002 it appeared things had calmed after Pat showed up in the UConn locker room following another Huskies NCAA title win over the Lady Vols to salute the team and Geno then made nice at his post-game presser.

But a year later, after his Philly boyhood friend Villanova women’s coach Harry Perretta became pals with Pat, the relationship set off new fodder for Auriemma, who is a master at working the media.

Perretta had won his Sweet 16 game in Knoxville and he noted he wore one of the lucky gift ties Pat sent him.

In another regional, after seeing the quotes, Auriemma’s media wanted a reaction and Jeff Jacobs of the Hartford Courant turned it into a column – which by the way was copied and  stacked up and on the media info table the next night in Tennessee.

So, Geno did Pat ever give you a tie.

No, a noose maybe. What can I say. Harry gave me up for an older woman.

After I read the piece, I go over to Harry and he says, I just got off the phone with him. He’s laughing his a—off.

She called first thing. Did you see what he’s saying now.

I told her, relax.

It was as much a clash of personalities besides Perretta saying to me, “They’re two people who like to win very much and very competitive. What can I say.”

Earliest Days

When I started running what became the AP Poll, Pat didn’t want to be on the voting board, which were coaches until 1994-95, because of the time it might detract from buiding the Lady Vols brand.

But she welcomed its arrival and we talked a bunch all the time since before computers I was plugged into the nation. And if we didn’t talk directly, her famed Sports Information Director, Debby Jennings, besides enjoying our friendship and exchange of information, would often call with a conversation opening, “Mel, Pat needs to know … “

The legend and I had fun tossing each other’s name around – me, because of her growing reputation and she, because she could claim she had an in with the guy who could get her team some national attention.

One time, for example, yours truly in Knoxville for a key game, leads out of town media to a popular barbecue place called Calhoun’s.

It’s crowded and it was going to be a long wait. I turn to the group and in a louder voice to be heard by the hostess, say, I asked Pat when she sent us over here if we were going to have to wait.

Upon hearing me, the hostess comes to me and says, I didn’t know you were friends with Coach Summitt. We have a room around the side we’ll open for you.

 She put the shoe on the other foot a few years later when we hosted the Women’s Final Four in Philadelphia.

Pat was the feature speaker at a mid-winter fund raiser for the tourney. 

I got there just at the start so hadn't been to the vip reception in which Cathy Andruzzi, the head of the local organizing committee, had all the city’s movers and shakers.

So I don’t know if Pat was aware I had made it.

But as she begins her talk and at the top of her opening, she says, “I’m pleased to be here. Everyone in women’s basketball knows, when you’re in Philadelphia, you’re in Mel Greenberg’s city.

Needless to say, when she was done, many of the guests came over remarking, really, you’re personal friends with Coach Summitt.

  At The Top of Her Game

As much a reputation for being stern with her players, Pat’s X’s and O’s pulled her team out of the fire many times when it looked like defeat loomed.
Funny, there was a stretch she became known as the Dean Smith of women’s basketball for the wrong reason. Having come so close so many times just like the renowned UNC men’s coach, she didn’t win her first national title until 1987 – he too went a long way before getting the Tar Heel’s first.

The Vols got help because Louisiana Tech, which got their share of victories over Tennessee long before UConn came on the scene, upset Texas in a terrific game in the semifinals. 

That was huge to do it in Texas so the Techsters did not have much left in the tank to play in the title game. That tourney was marked as Long Beach, actually a favorite, fired up Tennessee in the semifinals when Cindy Brown referred to Pat’s group as a bunch of corn-fed chicks.

While much is made of the 1997 season when Tennessee won the title despite 10 losses, what is often overlooked is Pat’s group were close in eight of them and in the national semifinals, Old Dominion shocked Stanford, the national favorite.

Surprise Surprise

So it’s 1998, the year of the Tennessee undefeated super team in Kansas City. Jennings tells me the night before the USBWA awards brunch Pat wouldn’t be around to get her coach of the year honor since the title game was set for eight hours later.

Fine and when I open the boxes that morning to take out the plaques I am equally happy she wouldn’t be there because the home office spelled her name wrong.

Now local favorite Lynnette Woodard, who played at Kansas in the early 1980s, is going to get our pioneer award. Halfway through me making the introduction, I see heads turning a certain direction and can hear a pin drop.

I turn around and there’s Pat and the whole team in sweatsuits just inside the entrance.

Pat yells out: This is a historic tournament. I’ve never seen you speechless before.

I respond, I was told you weren’t coming.

She comes right back, I’d never muss one of your events.

Now I have to explain the glitch on the plaque and so I note to her that I can’t give it outright because unlike her team our organization is not perfect and there is s typo on her name that has to be fixed. 

The quote ended up showing up in a bunch of notebook columns.

Getting to Know You

It’s 1996 a month or so before the Olympics in Atlanta and the future and short-lived American Basketball League is holding an open tryout to get to a pool of 100 players for the league’s first draft.

The event was in the suburbs at Emory College.

Now as players were hanging out waiting their turn on the court there was time to chat and I started getting know who I am, yeah you played at Tennessee, or thanks for what you’ve done.

This becomes a bit baffling because over the years there was a great friendship with Pat and her staff but rarely chatted with players, other than formal interviews, because they were under lock and key.

Well, now they are out of jail, a friend said of Pat’s tight control though once Brooke-Marciniak got there, a free spirit transfer from Notre Dame, Pat began to lighten up more and admitted as much.

But a few days later, I’m talking to Jennings and mention my curiosity over what happened at the combine.

Debby says, well they all know you or who you are because Pat gives all the newcomers a quiz on the history of the game and you are a big part of the question-and-answer test.

Hitching a Ride

It’s 2005 and the Women’s Final Four is in Boston.

Sunday morning USA Basketball is having a national women’s team workout at Boston College. We drive out to Chestnut Hill and upon arriving there I see Pat is on the scene with an entourage, having been eliminated by North Carolina the week before in Cleveland.

At some point during the scrimmage, Pat, whose group had taken a cab from downtown, asks how did I get there.

I got a car.

Great. We’re all going back with you.

It so happened I had a talented student journalist from a mid-Atlantic school with me and so we pile in and Pat is crammed into back where she also sat.

On the way back, Pat, who I knew was having some issues back home, but didn’t know exactly what, gets troubling news about someone in the family and breaks down.

But she soon re-composes herself. I decide if we ever get to a point in time where we are now, I would not mention the departure from a personality of steel perceived by the public.

While my young colleague also decided she would ignore that brief moment, she was excited to tell a friend on the phone she was at the Women’s Final Four and just sat in the back of yours truly’s car getting crushed to death by Pat Summitt.

Say this about the legend long before the disease was diagnosed, a few weeks later I’m at a game of Pat’s and there’s time before the opening tip, we’re shooting the breeze, but almost at the outset she asks about the student that was with me and did she enjoy the finals.

But that was Pat. No matter how involved she was with recruiting and her team in-season she understood the game had to be grown and she was going to do her part.

When the great deliberations began among schools whether to stay with AIAW or move to the NCAA, we had several discussions and while what was best for Tennessee was important, it was what is best for women’s basketball and other women’s sports that was paramount in her view.

In 1990, when we started the women's division of the United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA), we had an elaborate awards luncheon in Knoxville, which held the Women's Final Four.

In catching up to the past along with paying tribute to the current performers, we gave coach of the decade awards to Louiisiana Tech's Leon Barmore, who was emotional in his acceptance, and Pat.

After it ended as we were breaking up and the room emptying, Pat approached me from a few steps, and said, I love you. I want you to know that. Do you hear me. I love.

It was touching but in the last few days given the outpouring to her, via the public, radio, TV, online, local, national and global, what's also enduring is the world loves you too Pat. And that will endure.

-- Mel