Tennessee was down big at halftime at Rutgers on Saturday. No Tennessee team had ever scored so few points (13) in the first half. Almost nobody in orange on the floor looked like they knew what they were doing. Talented players were acting like wallflowers. They alternated between being careless and being timid, both of which resulted in lots of turnovers and very little offense.
So did you turn off the TV at the break of the Tennessee-Rutgers game on Saturday? Surely not.
Because didn’t you suspect it would turn out just as it did? That Tennessee would rally, and Rutgers would play not to lose … and then, in fact, lose a very close game. Yeah, I know that it will be labeled a “stunning turnaround.”
But was it, really? Is it ever “stunning” when Tennessee turns the tables on somebody? Nope.
Rutgers made mistakes in this 55-51 defeat, no doubt. We could complain about how frustrating it is to watch a team with so much talent and intelligence play such predictably bad offense. We could wonder how much of Kia Vaughn’s ineffectiveness is that Rutgers doesn’t use its posts very well, and how much is that she seems to have lost confidence. We could bring up a lot of Rutgers’ past bad luck/pain/suffering.
But … instead, let’s talk about why Tennessee won this game. And why it wins games like this year after year after year against teams – including very, very good teams _ from every conference. Sure, Tennessee always has plenty of talent and often dominates foes. However, Tennessee’s “escapes” from games in which it doesn’t play as well throughout have been so numerous and fearless that they make the work of Houdini appear like that of an adolescent who’s practiced with his store-bought magic kit for a couple of weeks before his “gig” at a pre-schooler’s birthday party.
OK, maybe dissing Houdini to praise Tennessee is a bit extreme. However, I’m making the point that Tennessee just does this stuff as if it’s routine. (And were it not for UConn, the Orange Crush would have 13 national titles now.)
What’s the Tennessee “magic?”
Pat Summitt’s force of personality.
She knows how best to inspire and lead every team she has – and it’s not always in the same exact way because the teams are not all identical. With this current group of youngsters that is still learning some basic things every day, a lot of maniac screaming is not going to do much good. And she realizes that.
However, holding people accountable in a fair but very firm way does work _ even when they are young.
At least, it works at Tennessee for two reasons: The players who come there truly understand there are sky-high expectations and because, as far as I can tell, Summitt doesn’t play head games with them. She’s straightforward about what she wants, and they always know where they stand with her.
Way back in 1997, Summitt visited Kansas City for a coaching clinic, after which I spent quite a bit of time talking with her while a photographer did a photo shoot of her in preparation for the 1998 Final Four in KC.
It was one of those interviews that I recall pretty vividly, in part because it was the first time I really talked to Summitt at length without any other reporters around. I was curious about many things, but one I remember very keenly was asking how she dealt with it when one player was doing well and others weren’t.
I recalled seeing some video of her in the locker room at halftime of a game from Tennessee’s difficult-but-ultimately-triumphant 1997 season. In the clip, Summitt had praised Chamique Holdsclaw but said everyone else was basically playing like garbage.
So I asked Summitt if it was hard for her to single out one player for praise, fearing that maybe the other players would resent that, or the singled-out player might be uncomfortable, and that _ one way or another _ it could disrupt team chemistry.
And she said that it wasn’t hard for her at all, nor did she hesitate to do it. Because she wanted her players to know that she told it like it was, period. It wasn’t about her playing favorites or trying to rattle their psyches. Every practice/game, they were going to be evaluated on what they were doing then.
In some ways, that can be intimidating … but also very empowering. For example, just because you played well 15 days in a row doesn’t mean you have free rein to slack off on the 16th day. But conversely, if you’re in Summitt’s doghouse one day, it doesn’t mean you’re stuck there. You control that.
So Saturday at halftime, we saw Summitt tell Angie Bjorklund she was pulling a “no-show.” Which was true. It wasn’t mean or said in a taunting way. It was just plain fact. And Summitt also said if the rest of the players would put forth the effort that Glory Johnson was, the team would be in OK shape. Again, it was just the truth.
In the second half, Bjorklund took responsibility for her offensive game, and ended up with 12 points. And the team as a whole played with more spirit and purpose in the second half.
If what Summitt does sounds like just basic common-sense leadership, then think about how little of that too many “leaders” – in all fields of work – actually practice.