I was sitting with then Inman Middle School girls’ basketball coach Renae Lassiter during a District 10-AAA Tournament game between the Henry County Lady Patriots and the Dickson County Lady Cougars on Feb. 20, 1997, when University of Tennessee Lady Vols’ head coach Pat Summitt and her assistant Holly Warlick walked into Gamlin Gymnasium.
We were sitting in the end zone bleachers just inside the HCHS cafeteria when Summitt and Warlick came through the doors on the opposite end of the gym. I knew immediately that she had walked in because Lassiter just about pulled my arm off getting my attention while very excitedly proclaiming that Summitt had just walked into the gym.
Lassiter knew Summitt personally, and I watched as she sprinted down to greet Summitt and Warlick. They took sideline seats, and when there was a break in the game, I walked down and asked Renae to introduce me.
I talked with Summitt about the Lady Vols, and she reminded me that she couldn’t speak about why she was at the gym because of NCAA regulations. It obviously was the 6-foot-6-inch Dickson County center Amanda Stringer. Summitt said she couldn’t say who she was watching, but looked from the floor toward the ceiling while telling me that I probably could figure that out on my own.
Summitt didn’t actively recruit Stringer, who eventually signed with South Carolina but never played there.Summitt did point out that she liked the way Dickson’s Jennifer Fambrough played, but she wasn’t the kind of player that she needed right then for the Lady Vols. She said Fambrough had Southeastern Conference talent, and she’d be sure her fellow coaches knew about that girl.
Fambrough went on to play at Mississippi State and became an All-SEC performer.
We talked about her trip to Paris on UT’s jet that landed at the Henry County airport. Summitt believed that her office had rented a car that would be waiting for her at the airport, but it wasn’t there. She told me that the man at the airport told her that all he could offer her was his straight-shift pickup. Summitt told him that she grew up driving straight-shift pickups on the family farm in Henrietta and asked if she could borrow it to get to Gamlin Gymansium. And she did!
Lassiter posted on Facebook this week about how she got to know Summitt so well. She, along with Shannon Osbron, of Paris, were teammates of Tracey Head at Bethel College. Head was Summitt’s neice and took the two Henry County girls to Knoxville to see a Lady Vols’ game.
They spent the night at Summitt’s house. There were some more cousins in town, and the youngsters, including Summitt’s son, Tyler, were to sleep in the same room. Of course, they stayed up too late, which was confirmed when Summitt came downstairs and told them to go to bed.
Lassiter said the next morming that Summitt got up early and fixed breakfast for everybody before they headed back to Bethel. The late Buddy Wiggleton was the head coach at Bethel at that time. Of course, Wiggleton would later serve as head coach and as an assistant coach at HCHS.
Being gracious, Lassiter asked Summitt if she could buy her dinner that night at Gamlin Gym. Summitt told her that it was sweet to ask, but it was unnecessary because she had put a roast and some vegetables into a crock pot before they got on the plane in Knoxville, and that should be about ready when she got home. Then, she could have dinner with her family before going to bed.
I backed off to take the photograph that appears with this story, and there is a story in the photograph. It appears that Summitt and Warlick were talking about something in the game that was being played, but we were in a timeout. Summitt is actually coaching Lassiter on how to pose for the photograph and not to stare straight at the lens. So Lassiter looked up at the scoreboard about the same time I snapped the photo (Renae will probably kill me for revealing this!).
Summitt and Warlick went to congratulate the teams after Dickson County’s 51-40 victory. Summitt signed a slew of autographs before she left the gymnasium and returned the borrowed truck.
It was a reporter’s dream to have a major coach magically appear in front of you like that, and sometimes, the stories that have nothing to do with the sport they coach are just as interesting as those about the eight championships, the 1,098 victories and the 100 percent graduation rate Summitt’s teams had at Tennessee.
Like all of you, I’ve been reading the comments of former players, coaches and broadcasters after Summittdied on Tuesday. Everybody seems to have a special memory or moment with the former Lady Vols’ great. Me, too!