Blount Press Row

‘Keep Going’

Blount Press Row doesn’t exist without one fateful day at Thompson-Boling

Pat Summitt holds aloft the netting from one of eight national championships at Tennessee.

It could all have gone so differently.

I went to college much later than most. After eight years in the Navy, I hit the campus at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in the fall of 1988. I was 28 years old.

I had no intentions whatsoever of pursuing journalism as a career. A finance major, I was going to college for the bucks.

I was also a stark raving Lady Vol fan.

My last duty station before college was a nuclear submarine base outside Seattle. When Tennessee made the Women’s Final Four in Tacoma in 1988, with a fellow Alcoa High School alum, Dawn Marsh, as its point guard, I was stoked.

As luck would have it, I had the watch that weekend. I offered big money to anyone who would switch with me but got no takers. When Tennessee lost and I wasn’t there, I made the lives of everyone at Bangor Submarine Base miserable.

I annoyed those guys for weeks. I sang “Rocky Top” to them at the top of my lungs. At midnight.

Finally a student at Tennessee, I could go to all the games. My best friend, Marissa, and I didn’t miss many the next four years. Even if I had to sit in the balcony, I was cool . . . until this kid from Kentucky showed up my sophomore year.

Lisa Harrison changed everything. I would drop finance for journalism because of her. Her shot was so smooth.

Through Lisa, I would meet Pat Summitt. Where Lisa changed what I wanted to do with my life, Summitt would show me how to get there.

Lisa was the Candace Parker of my day. Parker could dunk. Lisa could get hot and turn the whole thing into a ballet.

Naismith Player of the Year, USA Today Player of the Year, Kentucky Miss Basketball, Lisa won everything as a high school player. I kept the newspaper clippings for years. When she hit Knoxville the fall of 1989, I remember being stunned the campus wasn’t going nuts for this kid.

This was the best player in the country! A silky, 6-foot-1, jump-shooting machine.

You didn’t see her name in The Daily Beacon, the UT student newspaper, very much. Maybe that was why.

“Why don’t you do something about it?” Marissa asked.

When I finished class that day, I marched down to the Beacon, found the sports editor and asked if he needed anyone to help cover the Lady Vols.

Couldn’t believe he said, “Yes.” I loved sports, but I didn’t know beans when it came to writing about them. I just wanted to meet Lisa. This was going to be easy.

I got hold of Katie Wynn, Pat’s personal secretary, and set up an interview. Lisa met me a couple days later. When she walked out of McClung Tower that morning, I was there waiting.

Never forget it. She wore red sweats, a plain, white T-shirt and a beat up pair of Keds.

“Man, she’s really tall close up,” I thought. When she sat down next to me, it was all over. I froze. Bad.

Wanting to meet someone famous and actually meeting them can be two entirely different things. I stammered badly. It was a little cool that morning, but I was pouring sweat. My hands were clammy. I couldn’t feel my feet!

She lied and said I was doing OK. Before I met her coach that afternoon, I went back to the Beacon and prepared like crazy. I’d never met Pat Summitt, but I was going to show her I was ready to deal.

Right.

The interview was set up for after practice. They’d already dimmed the lights inside Thompson-Boling Arena by the time Marissa and I got there. Thompson-Boling is a cave with only sunlight through the windows to pick your way. Across the floor, Pat sat at the scorer’s table going over a practice report.

I introduced myself and extended my hand. Marissa said, “Hi, coach,” and pow!

The meltdown in front of Lisa was nothing. This was a catastrophe. To make matters worse, my best friend was there next to me, taking it all in.

I’ve been asked on occasion what makes Summitt such a powerful personality, the kind of coach that can recruit the players she does. Ever been close enough to look her in the eye?

In a heartbeat, it’s all there:

Focus.

Precision.

Purpose.

Accountability.

I prepared a list of 20 questions to ensure things didn’t implode like they had with Lisa. I’d just turn on the recorder and do what I’d seen all the other reporters do. (It’s the reason I still prefer to work with a notebook to this day. I’d rather talk with someone than stick a microphone in their face. They know when you’re faking.)

By question No. 2, I was finished. I apologized and got up to leave, and Summitt said, “No, you’re doing fine. Keep going.”

Keep going. I have, coach, for more than 20 years now, all because you didn’t squash me like a bug that day. It’s why what’s happening today is so very, very tough.

Just know that we love you, coach, and we will always, always, keep going.

Stefan Cooper
Editor
Blount Press Row

3 Comments

  1. Brenda

    April 25, 2012 at 11:58 pm

    I loved it too. What a memory! Meeting Pat Summitt! Glad you kept going. Your writing has such heart &I’m glad you don’t do that microphone thing either!

  2. Karen

    April 20, 2012 at 10:28 pm

    Love this, Stefan! Great job!

  3. Sharon Carver

    April 19, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    I enjoyed your story about Pat. She is a very stand up lady. What I will always remember is how she took the time to wish my mother a Happy Birthday on her 70th birthday. My sister setup a time to go over to UT and was going to just leave a tape that if Pat could some how leave her a message because our mother is a very big Lady Vols fan. That is not not what Pat did. She actually met my sister took her the Smokey bookstore there on campus setup a UT Vol display and while my sister filmed it she wished my mother a Happy Birthday and even sung to her. That is what makes her a stand up lady. She loves her fans and takes time out of her busy schedule for them.

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