Raising of Pat Summitt's Banner
Hanging a banner for a national championship is a ritual every school performs.
It's a short list of schools, however, where running out of room is an issue.
At Thompson-Boling Arena, the seventh women's basketball banner in 2007 filled out the baseline rafter. The eighth, a year later, turned the corner on a new row.
Tennessee squeezed in another banner Monday night. It honors the woman responsible for all the other banners.
There were so many numbers that could have been chosen to adorn Pat Summitt's banner. UT had to be selective.
"What makes Pat so special is her humility,'' said Michelle Marciniak, one of her former players who came in from New York.
Summitt, were she a different sort of person, has every reason not to be humble. A staggering 1,098 wins. The 18 Final Fours. The 21 different All-Americans. The 100 percent graduation rate. The 78 players sent into the coaching ranks.
The numbers stopped prematurely. It's been nine months since Summitt stepped down as head coach, yielding to an opponent she couldn't defeat — at least not in the same sense she defeated those 1,098 opponents on the court over 38 years.
She carries on as the face to rally behind in a battle against early-onset dementia, the disease she was diagnosed with in 2011.
"I'm just so glad she was able to be here and get this opportunity for people to honor her,'' said Marciniak, who was first the MVP of the 1996 Final Four — see
banner No. 4 — and then one of the 78 Lady Vols who went into coaching.
Shortly before UT's tipoff against Notre Dame, Summitt took the court with her mother Hazel Head and her future daughter-in-law AnDe Ragsdale.
She was soon swamped by current players and coaches and several former stars, including Tamika Catchings, Chamique Holdsclaw and Marciniak. Candace Parker, currently playing in Russia, jetted in for the occasion.
They stay in touch in this most difficult chapter of their coach's life.
"Things are different,'' said Marciniak, "but what's special to me is to just sit and be with her even if we don't talk about that much.''
And they cook. They love to stop by Summitt's house and crank up the grill.
"Italian marinated chicken that is to die for,'' Marciniak said. "Creamed jalapeno corn. Salmon teriyaki, open faced on the grill. Want me to go on?''
Every Lady Vols fan can't drop in and chow down. But they can fill an arena and cheer the program Summitt built.
And they do, even when there's not a banner to hang. That is Summitt's greatest legacy.
When she arrived at UT in 1974 to take over a fledgling program in a fledgling sport, she set sight on catching the marquee programs that had a head start.
She caught them and passed them. Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion are on the fringes now. Texas and Southern Cal have fallen back in the pack.
Tennessee surges on, playing for high stakes and big crowds.
Monday night could have been a very different scene. Holly Warlick's first team had to replace four starters. It was embarrassed by Chattanooga on opening night. But here on a night deep into January the Lady Vols are a top-10 team, playing to a crowd of 13,556.
Now Summitt's banner will hang — high over the court that already bears her name — next to those of five of her former players.
It will also hang alongside the banner of Ray Mears, UT's greatest men's coach who also was forced to step away in the prime of his career by a mental-health issue.
Summitt's former players, wherever their lives might have taken them, will reach out to her.
"Just to let her know I love her,'' said Marciniak. "Just to have that touch point.''
For the rest, there's a new touch point. It's hanging in the rafters.