Mama's Boy, And Proud of It

October 10, 2010

Isn't he just like his mama? That's what folks in Knoxville used to say about Tyler Summitt when he was a little boy, tagging along with his mother like a tiny assistant. Maybe they sensed something. Summit, now a walk-on point guard at Tennessee, gets up before the sun at least twice a week and goes to the Hill, the ramp that rises from ground level toward the upper deck of Neyland Stadium. He sprints the incline repeatedly, until his lungs burn, before moving on after classes to hours of agility drills, weight work and skill sessions. It isn't the same as working on the family tobacco and dairy farm from dawn to dusk, as his mother sometimes did as a child, but it's not so different either. Summitt thrives on basketball and hard work, and yes, that's just like his mama.

In case the school, the sport and the surname haven't tipped you off, Tyler's mother is women's basketball coach Pat Summitt, who's merely one of the best coaches ever to blow a whistle. Being the offspring of an icon can be suffocating for some, but Tyler has always been able to breathe freely, enjoying the benefits of his mother's remarkable career—"White House visits?" he says. "I've been five times. No, I think it's six"—and developing a skin thick enough to handle unwanted attention. "My first varsity game in high school, the fans from the other team started chanting 'Mama's boy, Mama's boy' every time I touched the ball," he says. "You just have to shut it out and play." Memo to hecklers: When a guy's mama has eight national titles and more wins than any coach in NCAA history, that's not even an insult.

Isn't he just like his mama? Not quite, but he's working on it. That's partly why Summitt, a 6-foot, 185-pound sophomore, is driving himself so hard even though he knows it's a long shot he'll play more than a few garbage-time minutes. Having soaked up his mother's coaching knowledge for years, Tyler doesn't want to just play for coach Bruce Pearl, he wants to study under him. Then he might seek a graduate assistant job with North Carolina coach Roy Williams. He hasn't decided yet if he wants to run a women's program or a men's, but he knows this much: If all goes according to his plan, there will one day be another Coach Summitt.

Mother and son have always bonded over the discipline the sport requires. When Tyler was in sixth grade, Pat came home to find him crying, holding a basketball under each arm, after being cut from middle school tryouts. "I told him, 'You see those two basketballs you've got? If you wear them out over the summer, you'll make the team next year,' " she says. "And he did exactly that."

As proud as she is of his desire to go into the family business, Summitt, who divorced Tyler's father, R.B. Summitt, in 2008, finds herself reminding her son that there is such a thing as working too hard. That would no doubt shock the Lady Volunteers, from whom she's demanded so much over 36 seasons. "I have to tell him he can't work out every single day," she says. "You have to give your body a chance to rest and recover." And how often does the 58-year-old Summitt herself work out? "Six days a week," she says. "I know where he gets it from. We're both driven."

Isn't he just like his mama? How could he not be? The soundtrack to Tyler's life has been the bouncing of a basketball. He went on recruiting trips as an infant. He sat on the bench next to his mom during pregame warmups. He listened at night as she analyzed game tapes at home. "The sound of her yelling at the screen because somebody didn't make the right cut or help on defense, that was my lullaby, my bedtime story," he says. Before long he was watching with her, taking note of how she would point out three or four things that occurred away from the ball, and then picking out some of those things himself.

Tyler also absorbed the importance of preparation, so it isn't surprising that he has notebooks bulging with coaching information—diagrams of every play and every defense imaginable. There are practice plans from his mother, from his high school and AAU coaches, as well as quotations such as, "Winning is in the details." Preseason practice hasn't even started yet and he already has 10 pages of observations from Pearl, Vols staff members and professors. (Given that Pearl recently admitted lying to the NCAA concerning recruiting violations, it might be best if Tyler only picks up tips on how to coach players, not how to recruit them.)

Though Tyler was a co-captain and three-year starter at Webb School of Knoxville, he wasn't much of a scorer (2.8 points per game as a senior), and he received no interest from Division I recruiters. Still, it didn't take any convincing for Pearl to accept him as a walk-on, even though Pat told him to feel no obligation to do so. "He's a self-made player," Pearl says. "That can be a great example for every player in our program. And if a little bit of the Summitt basketball knowledge rubs off on me, that will be another good thing."

He's always been comfortable with his identity as Summitt's son, but Tyler was gratified when a Vols fan asked him to sign a ball recently after a game with current, former and local players in the Rocky Top league. "It was the first time I'd ever been asked for an autograph because I was a player, and not because of my last name," he says. "Felt good."

Isn't he just like his mama? No, not just like her. Just enough.

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Recruiting trips as an infant. Breaking down tape at bedtime. The soundtrack to Tyler Summitt's life has been the bouncing of a basketball.

PHOTOJOHN BURGESS

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