Pat Summitt walked into the expansive dining room of McAlister's Deli, an eatery on the main level of Thompson-Boling Arena on the southern tip of the University of Tennessee campus. A second-year journalism student at Tennessee, I glanced up from my lunch as the eyes of a dozen restaurant-goers locked onto the iconic women's basketball coach. Summitt strolled over to the table next to mine, pulled out a chair and climbed atop as a hush fell over her audience.
"Hey y'all," she said. "I'm Pat Summitt."
Onlookers laughed at Summitt's unnecessary introduction. "In case y'all didn't know," she continued, "our final SEC game of the regular season is tonight. We want to send this season out on a high note, but we need your support, so show up and be loud!"
I joined the patrons in applause as Summitt dismounted her stool and exited the cafe amid a few salutatory waves. Hours later, her Tennessee team did indeed overwhelm Vanderbilt in the 2008-09 regular-season finale in front of a rowdy but customary Lady Vols crowd. No need to check the night's attendance; the fans have been present in body and spirit for decades thanks to Summitt. Over her 38-year career, Tennessee's Hall of Fame coach accomplished the unthinkable: she made women's basketball matter on a football-crazed campus.
One cannot overstate the respect Summitt demanded from the Tennessee family. When NCAA violations arose in other sports, Vols fans shook their heads and said "Pat wouldn't do that." When postseason appearances became few and far between for other teams, fans shrugged and said "Pat wouldn't settle for that." When Tennessee searched for a new athletic director, as the school did last fall, fans suggested with sincerity "Maybe Pat would do that."
Such was the mindset of a university that has been enamored with football for half a century. With a men's program marinating in longtime mediocrity, basketball was secondary in the minds of Tennessee fans who still lived for Saturdays in the fall and for symbolic Volunteer legends steeped in football lore. But Summitt's consistent climb to more than 1,000 career victories with a women's basketball team forced pigskin-loving locals to pay attention to the hardwood.
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly how Summitt became the unofficial mayor of Knoxville. Perhaps it had something to do with Summitt's ability to connect with each and every fan as a coach of their own ilk, a coach born and bred on the farms of middle Tennessee. Perhaps it was the comfort of knowing who would be roaming the sidelines of Lady Vols games for more than three decades. Perhaps it was Summitt's love for the Volunteer state and a university that, in 1974, accepted the 22-year-old as its head coach, one who often drove the team bus and washed the team's jerseys.
Then, of course, there was the winning, and Tennessee fans embraced Summitt's success. In Thompson-Boling Arena, the basketball cathedral which Summitt would decorate with seven of her eight national championship banners in the years to come, attendance grew from 5,063 fans per game during the 1988-89 season to an average of 16,565 fans per contest only a decade later. Such crowds became the norm, and Tennessee fans helped the Lady Vols set women's basketball single-game attendance records four times in the span of Summitt's career. To the surprise of many, women's basketball mattered on campus. Tennessee's court may be called "The Summitt," but the arena is "The House That Pat Built." Is it any wonder that Summitt's second home, the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, sits just on the other side of downtown Knoxville?
But the coach found ways to combine success and integrity. She reminded us that her players were also Tennessee students. Summitt never saw a Lady Vols complete her four-year eligibility with the program and fail to graduate. On one occasion, as Tennessee prepared to travel to Alabama for a game in the spring of 2010, center Kelley Cain -- an intricate part of the Lady Vols' post game -- asked Summitt if she might skip the game to attend a specific class. The coach agreed, allowing Cain to stay home.
The most talented wordsmith would have trouble defining Pat Summitt, but even that task is easier than encompassing the coach's impact on a university and a sport. Today Lady Vols fans are among the most passionate in women's basketball -- and the traveling caravans donning "We Back Pat" shirts, which support Summitt's battle with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's-type, speak volumes to the coach's following. College football may be the king of the South, but there will always be only one queen of Knoxville.