Pat Summitt & my path to LMU

24 Aug

There are some news cycles that make your head spin. Then there are days like yesterday where it seems the floor has dropped out without warning. Catching a glimpse of a television tuned to Headline News during the Women of Service luncheon, I thought the east coast earthquake was going to be the news of the day. I even took a mental note to contact my family in New York to see if they felt anything. Little did I know that my world was about to be rocked.

Following the luncheon I walked back to the LMU-Duncan School of law revealing in the beautiful weather and cursing my choice of shoes. Thanks to my Blackberry I knew what things needed immediate attention and started to prioritize what I could get accomplished in my last hour in the office. My plan went out the window soon after I opened an email from UT’s Chancellor Jimmy Cheek. The subject read A Letter to the UT Family from Coach Pat Summitt. As an alumni of UT, I get emails from the school on a regular basis, but rarely do I stop what I’m doing actually open and read them. But the subject got my attention. After reading it, I sat in disbelief, struggling to absorb the message, Pat Summit had early onset dementia. It reminded me of when I first realized that my parents were getting old, suddenly one of my heroes was something other than invincible.

You may wonder what any of this has to do with LMU since this is a LMU blog. Quite simply, I wouldn’t be here at LMU if it weren’t for Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols. I know that seems like a pretty dramatic statement, but it is true. And yes, both my and LMU’s world would go on if I weren’t here, but I consider myself immensely lucky to be where I am in life.

So back to how Pat Summitt got me here… In the winter of 2000 I was a senior at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, N.Y.  For the past three and half years, I had worked in the Bonnies Athletic Department as a student assistant in sports information office. That winter I was in the midst of my second season travelling with the women’s basketball team and I was belatedly mapping out what would come after college. I had applied to graduate schools and was starting to look at graduate assistantships in sports information. I knew I wanted to stay in college athletics, but I was open to getting right to work or grad school. Ultimately it came down to two opportunities – Syracuse University or the University of Tennessee – and as March Madness dawned, I used the tournament to make my decision.

Anyone outside of college athletics may not recognize that it takes an army to put on the NCAA tournament, but literally hundreds of volunteers are needed at every competition site. During the 2000 NCAA Tournament, I was part of that army. I returned home to volunteer at Syracuse University, which was hosting the men’s East Regional. I used the tournament to get a feel for the staff there and hopefully, make a name for myself as they progressed in the selection process for graduate assistants.

My last stop on the NCAA tour was Philadelphia for the Women’s Basketball Final Four. It’s there that I first encountered Pat Summitt and the machine that is Lady Vol athletics. Sports Information Directors, or SIDs, are a close network of professionals who support each other. Women SIDs, in particular, are a close group, so when I arrived in Philadelphia there was a handful of women that took me under their wing and really got to know me. As soon as they heard that I had applied for the Lady Vol grad assistant position they made sure that I was assigned to duties that would help my path cross with anyone on the Lady Vol staff.

My first assignment was as a coach/player escort for the press conference on practice day. Outside the locker room one of my “mother hens” made sure she was there to introduce me to another pillar of the Lady Vol Universe, Debby Jennings, the veteran Lady Vol SID who had been with the team nearly as long as Pat Summitt herself. Debby immediately recognized my name from my application and told the other members of her staff who I was.

 The weekend passed by in a blur. I walked up and down the halls of arena leading the way for Lady Vol players, I kept the back-up clock during the games and even had some Geno Auriemma rants about the refs aimed in my direction. And though I never actually spoke to her, I observed Pat Summitt’s intensity, the expectations she has for everyone who is associated with the Lady Vols and the effort and quality she puts into all that she does. I got to know all of Debby’s staff and could see how different they operated compared to what I was used to. I decided before I left that if an offer was made, I was going to Tennessee, sight unseen. I just had to be a part of this program.

The Lady Vols lost to Connecticut in the championship and about three weeks after the game, Debby came calling. Following a formal phone interview I was offered the position and I packed up and moved south. I was willing to take the risk because I so wanted to be a part of the Lady Vol legacy. I wanted to work with and around the phenomenal female role models that made the Lady Vols a national brand. And yes, it was fun to tell people I was going to work for Pat Summitt.

My two years at UT weren’t perfect, but I learned so many lessons and became the person I am today. While there I also met my husband and fell in love with the region. I decided that my personal goals to have and raise a family couldn’t live in the same nights-, weekends-, holidays-world of sports information and college athletics. After grad school I stayed in Knoxville and started a career in sales promotion at Proffitt’s Corporate Headquarters. I learned about LMU through a co-worker at Proffitt’s who was a student here and that led me to this special place. But, I would not be here had it not been for the magic pull of the Orange and White. Without the first hand encounters with Pat Summitt, Debby Jennings and the Lady Vols at the 2000 Final Four, I am sure that I would have stayed home, lived with my parents and worked for another shade of orange at SU. Who knows where I would be today, but I can tell you I would not be in Harrogate, Tenn., and I would not be on the sidelines of history. I still volunteer at Lady Vol home games.

On January, 14, 2003 when Pat Summitt won her 800th win, I was there for the confetti shower. Two years later when she surpassed Dean Smith to become the winningest basketball coach, male or female, with win number 880 I was there again. Over the years I have handed Coach Summitt hundreds of box scores, I have escorted her down hallways and made sure the media were ready for her. I can’t say if she knows my name or even recognizes my face, but just like every fan in the stands, I feel a connection to her.  So when I opened that email and read the letter, I was stunned. I immediately thought of my mentor, Debby Jennings, who I was sure was sitting just out of view when Pat taped her video statement. I thought of the thousands of calls Debby would have to field in the months leading up to what is sure to be a historic season in women’s basketball and I couldn’t help but feel sad for what every member of the Lady Vol family was feeling. I never wore a Lady Vol jersey, I’m not an athlete, yet Pat Summitt is my coach and the reason I am where I am today.

 

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