Farewell to two icons, and innovators

I will never forget the first time I saw it.  I must have been around 9 years old and it was at the Mountain View Elementary School in Roanoke, Virginia.  My little 9 – 10 year old basketball team had a game scheduled in the Mountain View gym on that Saturday afternoon.  There were always games in front of ours so having another game in progress on this day was nothing new and certainly not unusual.  But, this was different.

It was the first time I ever saw girls play basketball.  Granted I was just 9 and other than the little girls in my class at elementary school, I didn’t interact with many of them or any really.  See, a true confession here.  I’ve always been afraid of women and that fear continues until today.  I just figured that girls had something better to do that waste their time talking to me.  I still believe that.  Hey I think everyone is smarter than me (which is probably true) and especially women.

My first thought was why are they playing that way?  You see that’s back in the days when girls basketball was a three-on-three half court game.  Three girls played offense and three played defense, at each end of the court.  We didn’t play that way.  It was five on five.  The three-on-three game eventually went the way of the dinosaur (thank God for that), but the fact that those girls were playing at all is a tribute to certain Pioneers of women’s athletics.  Today, the world lost the biggest women’s basketball Pioneer in Pat Summitt.

Incredibly competitive and certainly driven, the fact that women’s basketball is what it is today is a tribute to a hard-working farm girl from Henrietta, Tennessee.  Summitt was born in Clarksville, but her family moved to nearby Cheatham County, Tennessee to allow her to play basketball. The school in Clarksville didn’t have a team.  That one decision changed women’s basketball forever.  From high school she went on to play at UT-Martin and then in 1974 as so often happens, fate intervened.  Summitt (then unmarried and named Pat Head) was hired to be a graduate assistant at the University of Tennessee for the women’s team in 1974.  The head coach suddenly quit and by letter, she was asked to take over as the head coach.  She did and the rest as they say is history.  For a whopping $250.00 per month Summitt coached the team, drove the team bus on road trips where they often slept in sleeping bags on the other team’s gym floor the night before the game, and washed the uniforms.  From 1974 – 2012 she was the head coach at the University of Tennessee winning 1098 games and losing just 208, and keep in mind she lost her first game as head coach in 1974.  Eight National titles, 22 Final Fours, 16 SEC Championships and 16 SEC Tournament Championships are a resume that few can match.

When she started, women’s athletics wasn’t even under the umbrella of the NCAA.   In those days the NCAA was like Augusta National, a white men’s club so to speak.  Women’s athletics was governed by the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW).  Just four years after taking the job at Tennessee, the Lady Volunteers as they are still known despite a general athletic department rebranding to just “Volunteers” were in the AIAW Final 4.  They went back in 1979 and 1980, losing both times in the championship game to Old Dominion and La. Tech.

In 1982, the NCAA took over control of women’s basketball and held its first NCAA Tournament.  Tennessee was in the field and there’s never been an NCAA Tournament without the Lady Vols.  You can name all the accomplishments that you want for Summitt’s career, but consider this:  Every player who has played for her for 4 years has achieved a degree; 18 of her former players or assistant coaches have become head coaches themselves; and after going just 16 – 11 in her second year as head coach, the Lady Vols never won less than 20 games the rest of her career.  Her best team was probably the 39-0 team in 1998 which literally just picked off opponents like shooting fish in a barrel.  Think about all the former players who have gone on to become productive career women, mothers and mentors themselves.  Is there any other standard by which someone should be judged?

I’m not going to pretend that I knew Pat Summitt very well.  From 1997 – 1998 I worked at WATE in Knoxville and was part of covering the 1998 team.  I first met her after a practice one day, I introduced myself and she immediately starting asking questions about me.  I’m not that interesting but I told her where I was from and where I came to Knoxville from and she was warm and welcoming.  But, I damn near screwed up.  I happened to put a piece of equipment down on the arena floor in the general area she was standing.  I wasn’t paying attention.  She tripped over it and nearly fell down.  I thought to myself.  Nice, the best coach in women’s history almost went to the hospital thanks to me.  I apologized and she laughed it off and went on with the interview which is miraculous when you consider I came from Virginia.  Summitt had no love lost for the Commonwealth.  In 1990 she had a team on track to another Final 4 after having won her second NCAA title in 1989.  This time the Final 4 was in Knoxville on her home court.  The Lady Vols lost in the Regional Finals to the University of Virginia.  She never got over that.  In 1990 while pregnant and on a recruiting trip to Pennsylvania, she went into labor.  She got back on the private plane to go back to Tennessee and her contractions became worse.  The Pilot offered to put the plane down in Roanoke, Virginia.  She flatly refused saying this baby is not going to be born in Virginia.  That child went on to become a head coach of his own.

I’ve seen her practices.  I’ve always said, the reason she didn’t coach a men’s team is because the men couldn’t handle the practice.  She expected the best and demanded the best and when her players got out of line, they paid the price.  One year, her entire team engaged in a little too much “partying”.  Summitt’s response was to put 4 trash cans in each corner of the basketball floor and run the “partying” right out of them, if you know what I mean.

Today Pat Summitt lost the only game she never had a chance to win.  Diagnosed in 2011 with early on-set Dementia Alzheimer’s type, her condition deteriorated rapidly in just 5 years.  Alzheimer’s is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States and there is no cure.  According to the Mayo Clinic, early on-set hits in a persons’ 40s or 50s.  Those patients decline faster than those who get the disease later in life.  It literally kills a person’s brain.  Plaque builds between nerve cells interrupting communication between the cells, tangles build up in the brain blocking vital nutrients and the brain shrinks.  A person loses basic functions, can no longer walk and literally withers away.  I can tell you personally that I always heard about it, but never understood until I saw it and it’s effects on both the person and the family.  If you have a heart blockage that can be treated easily.  Alzheimer’s  is literally just sitting and waiting for the end to eventually come.  In the meantime the person’s loved ones go through hell.

And, on the same day that Summitt lost a battle another sports icon also lost a long battle with complications from a Stroke and Cancer.  Buddy Ryan couldn’t have been more different personality wise from Pat Summitt.  He was brash and basically “full of crap” but was equally an innovator in his sport of football and he had at least marginal ties to the Volunteer state as well.

Ryan is best known as the architect of the “46” Defense used by the Chicago Bears to win the 1985 Super Bowl.  Most defenses are named for their alignment.  The 4-3 has 4 down lineman and 3 linebackers.  Flip those numbers and you get the 3-4.  The 46 had 4 down lineman to the weak side or opposite side of the tight end, two linebackers on the line standing up on the tight end side and a strong safety right behind the left defensive end.  It’s basically what football coaches would call an eight man front.  It got its name from the Jersey number “46” worn by Chicago Strong Safety Doug Plank who was the strong safety up close to the line in the Defensive formation. Ryan was passionate about his defense.  He once said that everyone says the 46 is nothing but an 8 man front, and that’s like saying Marilyn Monroe was just another girl.

Ryan spent 35 years as a coach in the NFL, but got his start as high school coach in Gainesville, Texas.  After one year he served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.  When he was released from military service he began coaching again this time at the University of Buffalo as the Defensive Line coach.  He then made stops at Pacific (which no longer has football) and Vanderbilt (which might as well not have football) while earning a master’s degree from Middle Tennessee State just outside of Nashville.  From the college ranks he jumped to the pros as the Defensive Line coach of the New York Jets.  All he did there was help orchestrate one of the greatest upsets in football history when the Jets beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III giving the AFL it’s first Super Bowl title.  While at the Jets, Ryan developed his gift for turning a one liner.  One of his defenses at the Jets was called the Cheeseburger defense named after Outside Linebacker Al Harris who was nicknamed the “destroyer.”  Ryan named the defense after Harris by saying that the only thing he ever saw him destroy was a cheeseburger.

From there, Ryan jumped to the Defensive Line coach of the Minnesota Vikings where he coach the famed “Purple People Eaters.”  During his time in Minnesota, the Vikings went to two Super Bowls.  They haven’t been back since.  Ryan parlayed that job into the Defensive Coordinator job with the Chicago Bears where the “46 defense” was born.  When the Bears fired their coach in 1978, Ryan was passed over for the head coaching job for Mike Ditka.  The two hated each other but learned to co-exist despite a near fist fight on the field at halftime of the 85 Bears only loss that season to the Dolphins on Monday Night Football.  When the Bears won the Super Bowl, Ditka was carried off the field, but so was Ryan.  To date, still the only assistant coach bestowed with that honor.

Ryan’s first head coaching job was with the Philadelphia Eagles.  He again, reveled in controversy.  In 1987, he famously ran up the score on Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys.  In 1989, Cowboys Head Coach Jimmy Johnson contended that Ryan put a bounty on his place kicker Luis Zendejas and QB Troy Aikman during a Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas.  Johnson said in the post-game he tried to confront Ryan, but that Ryan was too chicken and “ran his fat butt into the dressing room.”

Ryan was fired in 1991 having never won a playoff game.  In 1993, he resurfaced as the Defensive Coordinator for the Houston Oilers. The Oilers won 11 games, but were a complete train wreck.  Ryan called the Houston Offense of Kevin Gilbride which was known as the run-and-shoot as the chuck-and-duck, but as Quarterback Warren Moon stated his defense couldn’t ever stop it in practice.  At the end of the 1993 season, Ryan threw a punch at Gilbride on the sidelines in a game with the Jets.  It missed and most observers believe that if players hadn’t held Gilbride back, he’d have kicked Ryan’s ass.  Ryan got one last chance as a head coach in Arizona where the Cardinals made him the General Manager.  He was a disaster as a GM and was shown the door after two years and a 12-20 record.  He retired to a horse farm in Kentucky with his second wife and became her care-giver before she died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2013.

Like Summit though, Ryan’s legacy lives on.  His son Rex is the head coach of the Buffalo Bills, his son Rob the Bills’ defensive coordinator.  Four of his defensive players from the 85 bears, Jeff Fisher, Ron Rivera, Mike Singletary and Leslie Frazier have all been NFL Head Coaches.

To these innovators, sports fans – and in particular little girls who dreamed of playing sports – we can only say Thank You, Farewell, God Speed, and may you find someone to coach in heaven because despite the battles you eventually lost, you will always be a coach.

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