TAMPA — There is a place, high above legend, where even the best coaches never reach. It is somewhere north of greatness, on just the other side of dominance. The air is thin there, and in the morning, it smells like new trophies.
It is called the Summitt.
And the reason they call it that is because of the tall woman with the long drawl.
Pat Summitt and her relentless Tennessee Vols spat another championship out of the photo-copier Tuesday night. Her star forward was injured, and the Vols found a way. Her team was in a scoring slump so severe that it seemed as if a computer virus had hit the stat sheet, and the Vols found a way.
This was Summitt's second title in a row, and the eighth of her career, and by now it seems pretty obvious that she is the most dynamic coach working today, man or woman, college or pro. This is what Summitt does. She finds a way. She pushes and she prods and she infuses her team with her stubbornness, and in the end, she goes to the jewelry store and orders another set of championship rings.
Eight championships? Think about it like this. Summitt has now won as many titles as
Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight and Dean Smith … combined. She has won as many as Don Shula, Bill Walsh and Tom Landry … put together. She has won as many as Bear Bryant and Bobby Bowden … total.
For Summitt, this one has to be among the sweetest. There was a vulnerability to this Tennessee team, from the divas who irked Summitt greatly early in the season to the pain in Candace Parker's shoulder. There was the spat with Geno Auriemma and the fight with the attack raccoon on her porch and the near miss against LSU.
Also, there was confetti.
For Summitt, the feeling must seem as common as a summer rainfall.
Tennessee was relentless against Stanford, a team that had looked so complete in its semifinal victory over UConn. If you are looking for another way to compare Summitt and Auriemma — and in women's college basketball, who isn't? — then it boils down to this. Against Stanford, Tennessee was able to do everything that UConn was not.
For instance, the Huskies could not defend Stanford's balance. The Vols, by contrast, smothered the Cardinal with their trap. Stanford had 25 turnovers against Tennessee and shot only 38.8 percent for the game.
Nor could UConn get to the offensive boards against Stanford. But Tennessee had 14 offensive rebounds, many leading to baskets at crucial times, as it pulled away.
Think of it like this. If Summitt was on the Memphis sideline on Monday night, don't you think the Tigers might have had a better chance to hang on against Kansas? Yeah, me too.
For so many games, for so many victories, Summitt, 55, has been the face of women's basketball. She has been at Tennessee for 34 seasons now, and her 18 Final Fours are a half-dozen more than that of UCLA coach John Wooden (whose 10 titles suddenly seem well within reach).
Summitt's latest victory came in Tampa, but its footprints are all over the place.
For instance, there was the meeting back in February, after the Valentine's Day Massacre loss to LSU. Summitt was ticked, even though her team was 22-2 at the time. She thought the Vols had quit against LSU, and she let everyone know about it.
"When I ain't happy, ain't nobody in the camp happy," Summitt said.
Before the Vandy game three days later, forward Alex Fuller dropped a note in her lap as she got off the team bus. It said: "Coach, everything is going to be okay. We've had a meeting. We're ready to play. It won't happen again."
That was 14 games ago. Tennessee never lost again.
The next toughest competition? That was probably Summitt against the raccoon on her deck. Summitt was walking her dogs, and she saw the raccoon. "They go for the eyes," Summitt said, a statement that is certain to stir them up at the Anti-Raccoon Defamation League.
The point, however, is that after Summitt swatted at the raccoon and dislocated her shoulder, she was too stubborn to call the team trainer for help. She tried to work it back into the socket in a chair, then in the shower, before finally reaching for the phone.
If you remember this Tennessee team for anything, then, remember it for the intense, stubborn team it turned into. It got a lot of both of those traits from the head coach.
Want to know who Summitt is? She told a story the other day about coaching her first game at Tennessee and losing by one point. When she told her father, who could be gruff, he paused and then said this.
"Just let me tell you one thing, Trisha. Don't take donkeys to the Kentucky Derby."
Yeah, that should be said, too. Tennessee's players are pretty good. Summitt is smart enough to get the right players. That's part of coaching, too.
If you are wondering, no, none of this is getting old to Summitt. She isn't going anywhere.
The message for the rest of women's college basketball?
Get ready to run, but there aren't any donkeys around here.