Thursday March 26th, 2009

News item: Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt put her team through an intense practice Tuesday, not even two full days after the two-time defending national champs were stunned by Ball State, 71-55, in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

"Losing in a first round game is unacceptable for this program," she said, by way of explanation. "We're never going to accept that."

Nor, apparently, is Summitt particularly accepting of the concept of spring break. The woman has won 1,005 games and eight national titles in her 34 years at Tennessee. This latest news from Rocky Top makes one wonder, What kind of world would it be it all of us were held to her standard? It would be a world in which:

-- Watchmen director Zack Snyder is placed under house arrest until such time as he produces a film that is more streamlined; less drenched in gore and pretension.

-- Unhinged CNBC stock picker Jim Cramer is remanded into custody at a caffeine detox facility after declaring "Bear Stearns is not in trouble," six days before Bear Stearns went under.

-- Self-absorbed vulgarian and New York Rangers left winger Sean Avery is denied re-entry to the NHL until he apologizes to the ex-girlfriends he slurred, then completes a Judith Martin-approved course on etiquette and manners.

Please do not assume, as I mistakenly did, that Summitt sought to punish her players. There was nothing punitive about last Tuesday's practice, I was assured by Debby Jennings, Tennessee's associate athletic director for media relations, who also noted that the session passed NCAA muster. The NCAA allows teams two hours of preseason, on-court practice per week, until April 15. True, the authors of that rule probably didn't envision student-athletes back on the floorboards before they'd had a chance to do their laundry from the season's final road trip. But that's how Summitt rolls when she's angry.

Did I say angry? I'm sorry, the coach wasn't angry -- was not conducting an hour-long exercise in negative reinforcement in the wake of the worst loss in the worst season in her career. With seven freshmen on her 2008-09 squad, Summitt often spoke of the importance of recognizing any and all "teaching moments."

So that wasn't cold fury we saw etched on her face in television footage from Tuesday's non-punitive session. Rather, that Morgan-Le-Fay mask reflected Summitt's determination to teach her players, as she told's Maria M. Cornelius, "that it is unacceptable losing a first-round game, and we lost to a team that just out-hustled us, outplayed us and obviously had the discipline that we lacked."

It is on days like Tuesday that one comes to fully comprehend how Summitt has won all those games, and why she isn't finished winning national titles. Yes, she's had her share of lighter moments. But at 56, with more victories than any other college basketball coach, ever, she remains as intense and hungry (but not angry!) as she was in 1974. Back then, she was a 22-year-old, first-year head coach with no fewer than four 21-year-olds on her team. "I was hard on them and myself and everyone around me," she recalls in her 1998 book, Reach For The Summit. "I thought I had to be."

The chapter begins with the author posing a rhetorical question to herself: "Sometimes I ask myself, 'Could I play for me?'"

The real question, following last Tuesday: Would she want to? Following their Monday morning bus ride from Bowling Green, Ky., site of their first-round flameout, the Lady Vols attended a team meeting that night. If any of them expected a low-key, lighthearted, better-luck-next-season kind of hugfest, they were sorely mistaken. Instead, Summitt went around the table, challenging their commitment to the program, asking each player, "Are you in or out?" One by one, Cornelius writes, they rededicated themselves. They learned from their coach -- who, you'll remember, was not ticked off; not in the slightest -- that they'd be practicing the next afternoon.

What is it that Crash Davis tells the skipper early in Bull Durham? "They're kids -- scare 'em." Several days before the 2005 BCS title game, at the end of a USC football practice that had been a bit low-energy for his taste, volcanic defensive line coach Ed Orgeron could be heard informing his charges that they were "a bunch of f------ [domesticated felines]." Were it up to him, he told them, "you'd all go in, shower, come back out, stretch and practice ALL OVER AGAIN!" Coach O didn't make good on that threat, but his boys got the message, then blew Oklahoma out of the tub a few days later.

The day after Oklahoma State ran all over Texas Tech in '07, downing the Red Raiders 49-45, newly appointed defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeil sent a message to his guys before the team's jog-through Sunday practice: Full pads tonight.

"Sundays aren't that intense, but this got intense real fast," recalled defensive end Jake Ratliff. "We came out with pads on and started tackling that night. He got his point across."

As did Summitt, who on the second day of the offseason subjected her subjects to defensive drills for an hour, after which she declared that many of her players still "just don't get it," that they lacked "mental toughness" and "the competitive drive on every play."

She did not require the Lady Vols to report to the court the next day. That's because they had a scheduled workout on the football field with strength coach Heather Mason.

While I feel a twinge of sympathy for Summitt's players, it is dwarfed by the pity I feel for whichever team draws Tennessee in next year's first round.

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