Tennessee never dropped out of my Top 25 poll this season, and I had the Orange Crush moving on to the Sweet 16 in my bracket (which I reluctantly fill out every year).
But now Tennessee is out of the tournament after the first round – a sentence I never thought I would type. Not even this season.
One of the things about being in the media and watching Tennessee for so long is that it’s given me the chance to see both sides of the program’s dominance very clearly. Meaning I’ve seen what it takes to keep a program at that level season after season and the joy that’s brought participants and followers. But I’ve also seen the toll – in terms of losses and disappointments – that Tennessee’s strength takes on other programs.
I’ve witnessed the professionalism and loyalty of people involved with every aspect of Tennessee women’s basketball. From head coach Pat Summitt down to the ushers at Thompson-Boling Arena, there is a right way for things to be done. Thus, that’s the only way they are done.
Regular press conferences and teleconferences are set up for the media. If an interview is scheduled at a certain time, it’s done at that time. Summitt has answered a million questions – some of them the dumbest queries that could possibly be asked – not because she “has” to, but because she believes it’s part of her responsibility.
This is a woman to whom nothing has ever been handed. She’s earned every bit of what she has. From the time she grew up toiling on her family’s farm to now, in 2009, when she likely won’t sleep very well the next few nights in her home on the Tennessee River.
I’ve heard other coaches talk with some envy about Summitt, and I always want to ask if they really want to live with the load she carries.
If they want to have to smile, shake hands, listen to strangers attentively and be “at their best” every time they step outside their homes, because that’s what Summitt has to do. If they want to live with the expectations of thousands of people who think national championships are just their right for being Tennessee fans. If they want to have a bulls-eye on their backs for every game, even in a season such as this where the pressure should have been off.
Or at least off a little. For pete’s sake, the program had just won back-to-back national titles – increasing that total to eight – but then lost all five starters. This was a team with six rookies and one redshirt freshman. A team that lost its only experienced post player in February. And it’s worth noting, also, that one of Tennessee’s longtime assistants, Nikki Caldwell, left the program to take over at UCLA.
Why is 22-11 a bad season in light of all of that?
The answer, of course, is because it’s Tennessee, and Summitt NEVER lets herself off the hook. In the many ways that she and UConn’s Geno Auriemma are very much alike (despite their enemy status) this is one that makes them so rare. Neither one ever says, “Oh, give us a break, we did pretty good! Let’s not expect the world every dang season!”
They don’t ever give themselves that escape hatch. They DO expect the world every season. And because they’ve been so good for so long, they have created two dynasties that provide great foils for the rest of the women’s college basketball world.
And Tennessee remains the biggest of all. How many times in Summitt’s 35 seasons has she taken her team to another school and spread the “gospel” of the game by bringing the excitement of a marquee program there? Who can count that high?
People may think I’ve ranked Tennessee too high or picked them to go too far. But realize that my expectations for the program are shaped by watching the way Summitt has navigated every potentially treacherous path she’s faced.
I’ve watched Tennessee get the best of most of its longtime rivals over and over, like poor old Vanderbilt. I’ve seen Tennessee continually smash the hopes of very good teams on the biggest stages, despite those teams having enough weapons to win. Think Virginia in the 1991 NCAA title game or Georgia in the 1996 national final, just to name two.
I’ve Tennessee win by dominating, and win by scrambling, and win with a superstar or two, and win with no stars at all. I’ve seen them win “impossible” games with foul shots or 3-pointers or buzzer-beating tip-ins or great defense. I’ve seen them keep most foes from doing the impossible things that Tennessee has done to them..
I think someday, women’s basketball really won’t have any juggernauts quite like Tennessee still is now (regardless of this season).
Tennessee and UConn likely always will be very good, mind you, just as programs such as North Carolina, Kansas and Duke are always (with brief exceptions) very good on the men’s side.
But there will simply be too much talent spread nationally across the women’s game for any program to do what Tennessee has done now for so many years in a row. The Tennessees and UConns of the future really will face the occasional first- or second-round NCAA loss and it will still be very surprising, but won’t seem like the world is ending.
That is part of the evolutionary growth of this sport, something Tennessee has contributed so much to that it can’t ever be overstated. Still, that “someday” is a ways off. Tennessee isn’t on the decline or losing ground in any kind of general sense.
It’s just this: Pat Summitt’s team had, by her standards, a very bad season. And it’s contributed to other teams achieving things they never have done before (or haven’t done for a long time.)
It may not be the kind of thing a disappointed Tennessee fan can really take ahold of for solace, at least not in the immediate sting of such a loss. But with time, you hope Tennessee and it fans can think of it this way: You truly have to be a giant to make such a loud noise when you fall.