Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Two Best Coaches Ever: Women

Pat Summitt.
I have been immersed in sports--athlete, sportswriter for 17 years, fan--all my life and I've known or met the two greatest coaches of my generation: Kay Wilkins and Pat Summitt. Both, of course, are women.

Kay died about a year ago in a Marion, N.C., nursing home; Pat died today of alzheimers complications in Tennessee, surrounded by her family.

These women excelled, generally at a time when notice of what they were doing escaped most of us. Summitt gained quite a bit of respect as her career waned in recent years by winning eight national basketball titles for the University of Tennessee.

The one phase where Summitt was most impressive, to my mind, was with her graduation rate: 100 percent over 38 years of college coaching. That's all of them, boys and girls. Every one of her basketball players graduated.

Miss Kay was a high school coach in a sport many don't even know is a sport: square dancing (she also coached basketball). But she was every bit the equal of Pat Summitt, the coach that I believe all coaches will be measured against for the foreseeable future.

Miss Kay is the basis for the lead character in my novel, CLOG!, and she is, without a doubt, my favorite. I watched her coach when I was a senior at Cranberry High School and cobble together teams, uniforms, schedules, transportation--all without pay. She won eight North Carolina championships and three national titles. She won more than 25 square dance trophies at the prestigious Mountain Youth Jamboree in Ashevillle.

Kay Wilkens.
She taught a hell of a lot more than square dancing to poor mountain kids who had little opportunity at Cranberry High  (later Avery County High), which had 375 students in grades 9-12 when I was there (1963-64). She had her teams on the national TV show "Hee! Haw!", took them overseas for exhibitions and made certain they visited big cities with their talent. She gave them culture, recognition and and a level of class that would not have been available to them otherwise. A number of her dancers were orphans from the Grandfather Home for Children.

I think Pat did pretty much the same thing, beginning as a 23-year-old head basketball coach at a big school (earning $250 a month and washing the team's uniforms). UT was huge, but the program was tiny for years (disbanded in 1926, returning in 1960), playing for AIAW championships, since the women were not part of the NCAA. She helped carve out a niche for women in general and women's basketball in particular that players and coaches take for granted now.

I think Gino Aurema of UConn is probably a better Xs and Os coach and certainly a better recruiter, but Auremma will never be confused with "beloved." Pat was that. She was all class.

There will be one Pat Summitt forever and I suspect most of us (exclude UConn fans if you'd like) know she deserves her spot on the top of the pedestal. Along with Miss Kay.

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