Once a Lady Vol, always a Lady Vol

Shelley Sexton Collier has been a coach for more than two decades. But she can still easily remember back to those days in practice at Tennessee, when she was the pupil and coach Pat Summitt would enter the gym looking even more driven than usual.

"Pat always walked fast," Collier recalled. "But when she came in and was walking really fast, you knew you were in trouble."

Collier is the girls' basketball coach and assistant athletic director at The Webb School in Knoxville, Tenn., where she mentored recent Tennessee standout and current WNBA player Glory Johnson. Collier also was the point guard for Tennessee's first NCAA championship team in 1987. Yet even back then, a quarter-century ago, she wasn't just a college senior playing for her team.

She felt an obligation to something much larger than that. She knew why Summitt's gate was so purposeful, especially in that 1986-87 season. The program was close to something monumentally important, but everyone knew it could still slip away. It had before.

So after Tennessee won in Collier's last collegiate game, she understood that the national championship would be shared with both the past and the future. When she talks to Tennessee players these days, she reminds them of that: They are all linked.

They at least sense that right away, as soon as they sign up to play in Knoxville, in fact. Because it's a hallmark of the Tennessee women's basketball program -- as towering an achievement, really, as the eight NCAA titles.

Summitt wanted everyone who played for Tennessee to feel she had a tangible connection to all others who ever had or would be in the program. Even if a player was born 30 years after another had finished college … even if one was an All-American starter and another was last off the bench … even if one listened to the twang of country music and another to the bang of heavy metal (or anything in between) … that link should still be there. Differences were overcome by that touchstone. It was Summitt's vision of what it meant to be a Lady Vol.

And she made nurturing that connection between teams and generations just as important a task as teaching defense, breaking down film or recruiting. That was a significant time commitment -- keeping in touch with former players, going to alumni functions, reminding them she never stopped caring -- that the always-busy Summitt carved out.

Joy Scruggs actually pre-dated Summitt at Tennessee; she was going into her senior season when Summitt took over the program in 1974. Scruggs went on to be a basketball coach, too, spending nearly three decades at Emory & Henry in Virginia, where she's now a professor.

"One thing that always struck me as interesting is that whenever you are at any kind of alumni gathering, everybody is so welcoming," said Scruggs. "Sometimes I think, 'There's no reason for these recent players to acknowledge us like they do. I played so long ago. My team didn't win a national championship.'

"But everyone acts like we're all the same. Everybody is valued and made to feel like you're a part of this. I know Pat did so much to make that so."

Thus, players from current junior guard Meighan Simmons to Shekinna Stricklen to Candace Parker to Shyra Ely to Gwen Jackson to Tamika Catchings to Chamique Holdsclaw to Michelle Marciniak to Lisa Harrison to Daedra Charles to Bridgette Gordon to Shelia Collins to Mary Ostrowski to Cindy Noble to Suzanne Barbre are, indeed, bound together. They and all the others who have donned the orange. With Tennessee, you can list a long paragraph of notable players' names and still feel that you left out at least twice that many who deserve mention.

"Once a Lady Vol, always a Lady Vol," said Catchings, stating the motto that Summitt reiterated over decades. "No matter where I go or who I talk to, when they ask what college I went to and I say 'University of Tennessee,' they always talk about Pat and the legacy that has been built there."

T for … tradition

What Tennessee has is still lacking overall in women's collegiate sports: tradition. It sounds grandiose, but it's a down-to-earth reality at Tennessee.

Tradition is what makes a sports team an actual part of the fabric of people's lives. It allows fans to have affection even for players they never actually saw play, and to compare players of different eras. It makes a team a topic of discussion at family gatherings -- or even be the reason for the gathering.

Tradition is appreciated in men's athletics but also often taken for granted. But in women's sports, it stands out as especially noteworthy. Women's team sports have less history to bind together generations of players and fans. And less overall support to make a women's team really "matter" to a school and a community.

Tradition generally requires popularity with fans and at least some success. But also, at the college level, there must be a feeling that has developed among alumni. So that even if running sprints and doing layup drills are wispy memories of people's youth, they remain invested in the program.

There has to be a belief that today's players in some way will still be "on the team" when they become yesterday's players.

"To be a Lady Vol is to be a part of something bigger than yourself," said Parker, who led Tennessee to its two most recent NCAA titles, in 2007 and '08. "Throughout our years at UT, our coach Pat Summitt taught us that the team is greater than self, and to always have each others' backs. Lady Vols are family."

Parker plays for the Los Angeles Sparks in the WNBA and is currently competing professionally in Russia. Catchings, who led her Indiana Fever team to the WNBA title in October, is playing in China.

They and other Lady Vols still competing professionally are a long way, physically, from Knoxville. But emotionally, the tie is omnipresent. However, it's not something that just "happens" because people go to the same school. It has to be fostered.

And there has to be some continuity in personnel in an athletic department. That definitely has been the case at Tennessee in many areas. Summitt was coach from 1974 to 2012, when she moved into an emeritus role. Her former player and longtime assistant, Holly Warlick, took over, and her devotion to Tennessee's tradition is as much her life's work as it has been for Summitt.

"Holly has always been loyal to her, and it's fitting that she carry that torch on," Collier said. "I think the rest of us have to support that and try to continue to be a part of that program, and instill in others who come into the program now all the things that Pat taught us.

"I can't really put into words what Pat has meant to me personally, and all that she's about. I just hope that the tradition will definitely always be there, regardless of if Pat is there."

Staying in touch

Collier is from Tennessee, and she already had a strong sense of the program's tradition even before she played for Summitt. She watched the Lady Vols in person while she was growing up in the 1970s and early '80s. She developed strong friendship ties to the class of seniors who were there when she came in as a freshman.

When Tennessee won the 1987 title, it was a long-awaited breakthrough for Summitt, who at that point had been coaching for 13 seasons and had missed out on a championship in both the AIAW and NCAA eras.

Even before taking off her jersey for the last time in the locker room after that title, Collier was already thinking of who else deserved a piece of the trophy.

"Our goal when we got there was to get that monkey off Pat's back and win a championship," Collier said. "We wanted to win it for her, but also for all those players who'd been before us."

Collier is one of many former players who sometimes drops by practice to watch and share motivational stories with current players. But that doesn't just happen in Knoxville. There are former Lady Vols spread all over the country who do that.

"Wherever we go, we see them," said Tennessee assistant coach Kyra Elzy, who was a player during two championship seasons in 1997 and '98. "Usually every Lady Vol has a similar message: 'Take care of this program. You better continue the legacy.'

"It's empowering to see how many lives that Pat has touched and how she's instilled the sisterhood in each of us."

Elzy remembers what it meant to her as a player to fully grasp that this legion of alums really was paying attention. Now, she sees that recognition in the current Tennessee players.

"Before every game, one of the things that Coach Warlick always says is, 'You're playing for everybody who's worn that jersey,'" Elzy said. "We never stop talking about history. I think it continues to hit home because they hear about it all the time."

Because of Summitt's diagnosis of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, in 2011, her career -- vast as it is -- has been shortened. There is the harsh reality that memories will fade for Summitt. The woman who dedicated herself to making sure no Lady Vol was ever forgotten will depend on that Orange sisterhood to perpetuate itself when she can't do it anymore.

"We have a Lady Vol alumni party at the Final Four every year," Elzy said. "Coach Summitt would always stop by. And every time, before she left the room, everybody would hold their glasses up in toast to her. Her theme was, 'You are always a Lady Vol. Even after you graduate, if you are in trouble or need help, we will stick together.' It doesn't matter the years that we played, we all have that connection."

Summitt will want the Lady Vols of 50 years from now to somehow still know what it meant when Collier's team won in 1987. How special the 1991 title was, coming on the heels of a huge Elite Eight disappointment the year before. How much of an impact on the sport's growth there was from the Holdsclaw-Catchings teams of the mid-1990s to early 2000s. How special it was -- even more so in retrospect -- that Parker came to Tennessee to spur the Lady Vols to Summitt's final two NCAA championships.

And, of course, she'll want those distant-future players to be aware of everything that will happen in the next half-century, the things that we haven't seen yet.

To keep that tradition going requires the participation of everyone who was a part of it. It means getting together when possible, visiting Knoxville or anywhere the Lady Vols are playing. It means maintaining an oral history, the telling and retelling of stories, through a lot of uproarious laugher and a few tears.

"The older I get, I'll think that I only have a few memories," said Scruggs, one of the Lady Vol alumnae who gathered at Summitt's home last summer for a marathon story-telling session that lasted well into the night. "But then when we get together, somebody else will talk about a story and it's like, 'Oh, yes, that reminds me! I'd forgotten that!'

"There are more memories I have, but I guess they're just back in my mind somewhere that don't get triggered often for me to bring them out. So it's always fun to talk to other former players because it brings more to the forefront. It enhances my past."

And it makes for a richer past that belongs to all Lady Vols of the future.