Pat Summitt went to the podium Wednesday morning to accept the inaugural star on the new Riverwalk of Fame during a ceremony on Volunteer Landing.
The longtime Tennessee women’s basketball coach had the perfect opening line for the crowd of fans, local politicians, and UT coaches who braved the near-freezing temperatures.
“I know you all probably want to hear ‘Rocky Top’ but I don’t know if I have it in me right now,” Summitt told the crowd. “But I would say. …”
And then Summitt sang ‘Rocky Top,’ along with several fans and coaches.
When the singing ended, Summitt said: “I don’t know that I deserve this, but I’m gonna accept it!”
The crowd laughed and cheered. It was that kind of morning.
Knoxville mayor and governor-elect Bill Haslam was the first to speak and soon turned a slight glitch into some humor.
Haslam explained that Summitt’s star — the first to be placed in a row honoring people from Knoxville and the area who have gained acclaim nationally and internationally — was actually a replica, and that the original was involved in “a slight mishap.”
“Things happen sometimes, right Coach?” Haslam said, looking at Summitt. “Players get away for a breakaway layup, things happen every now and then. So today, we don’t have the real star here, OK, and you might say, ‘Well, why are you here?’ ”
Summitt interrupted: “I thought I was the star!”
The crowd laughed.
Haslam said, “We don’t have the star that’s going to stay on the ground here, how about that.”
Also speaking before Summitt were UT provost Susan Martin and Susan Richardson Williams, former Lady Vols director of development. Williams, now a public affairs consultant, came up with the Riverwalk of Fame concept several years ago.
Others attending Wednesday’s ceremony were UT men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl, UT co-head softball coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly, Lady Vols soccer coach Angela Kelly, Summitt’s staff, and her son, Tyler.
“This is a tremendous honor for me,” Summitt said. “I accept it on behalf of all the Lady Vol coaches and men’s coaches because we are one big family.”
Summitt, who was born in Clarksville and grew up in nearby Henrietta, played for Cheatham County High School and UT Martin (1970-74) before landing the job as coach of the Lady Vols in the spring of 1974.
Thirty-seven seasons later, Summitt has accumulated 1,050 victories and eight NCAA national championships. She remains humble.
“It’s a great idea and a fun way obviously to honor someone,” Summitt told the crowd, “but I never thought it’d be a country girl from Cheatham County. I’m sure my family’s shakin’ their head: ‘How’d she get it?’ ”
After Summitt finished speaking, Haslam went to the podium and said he wanted to recognize one more person, Tyler Summitt.
“Here’s the goal,” Haslam said. “Tyler, in several years, hopefully you’ll be bringing grandchildren down here and there will be a row of stars all along here. …”
“Not too soon!” Summitt interrupted again.
“I said grandchildren!” Haslam said. “And someday, 50 years from now, you’ll say, ‘That’s my mother, and she was the very first of all these stars who are worthy of this, but she was the first.’ Tyler, I hope that happens someday.”
Dave Link is a freelance contributor.