Q&A: Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt

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Mel Evans / AP

Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team's head coach Pat Summitt

Legendary University of Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summitt, who has already won more games than any other basketball coach — men's or women's — in NCAA history, is on the verge of reaching a milestone that was simply unthinkable before the days of Title IX: 1,000 career victories.

Summitt could reach that feat on Feb. 2, when the Lady Vols play Oklahoma in Oklahoma City. Before win number 999 against the University of Mississippi on Jan. 29, Summitt, who has won eight national titles over her 35-year career with the Lady Vols, including the '07 and '08 championships, spoke to TIME's Sean Gregory about the challenges of coaching today's player, how she thinks she'd do in the NBA, and her cheerleading skills.

What's going through your head right now, as you get closer to this monumental milestone?

Well, I think a lot of people are constantly reminding me that this is a historic moment for our program, and for the game. Quite honestly, I've been so focused on my team. The first thing on my mind is trying to get these freshman to understand how you have to play the game. How you just have to have a different level of intensity, and commitment. When I think about it, I obviously think about all the teams and players that wore the orange. I think about how much we managed to win, not just at home, but on the road. And the fact that we have more Olympians and All-Americans than any program in the history of women's basketball.

You mentioned you're trying to get your freshman to play harder: you're known as one of the most intense coaches around. Have you mellowed at all over the past 35 years?

I think I've mellowed a lot from when I started coaching. But I still demand a lot. I really think that kids are more fragile now. I don't know why. But they don't seem to have as much toughness. If you call them out, you can just break their spirit. You have one-on-one meetings, go over and just talk to them during practice. It's just that they're sensitive. They're more fragile.

You started coaching at Tennessee in 1974, two years after the passage of Title IX, the landmark legislation that created more athletic opportunities for women. What was it like for a women's basketball team then?

I had to drive the van when I first started coaching. One time, for a road game, we actually slept in the other team's gym the night before. We had mats, we had our little sleeping bags. When I was a player at the University of Tennessee-Martin, we played at Tennessee Tech for three straight games, and we didn't wash our uniforms. We only had one set. We played because we loved the game. We didn't think anything about it.

We've had great fan support here — people are passionate about Lady Vols basketball. You see more and more universities now drawing big crowds. It's great at night, when we're not playing, to be able to come home and turn the TV on and watch Big 12, Big East, ACC and SEC women's games. It's amazing how far we've come.

Where have women's sports not made enough progress?

There are a number of institutions that have struggled to make a commitment to marketing their women's programs. You have to spend money to make money. You have to get out in the community you've got to get involved in charity events. That's not happening as much as it should. Coaches have to understand that that's very, very important.

Most women's sports advocates agree that not enough women are coaching women's teams. Do you agree?

I don't really think about that. I think athletic directors should hire people that can take over their program, recruit and be competitive in the women's game. It doesn't bother me. Obviously, if a man and a woman have equal experience and abilities, I'm going to hire a woman. Because we don't have as many opportunities.

Candace Parker, who played on your '07 and '08 national title teams, is pregnant. She's due in May, just before the WNBA season kicks off. She was the WNBA MVP as a rookie, and is the chief marketing face of the league. Her pregnancy will obviously sideline her for at least part of the season. Some people aren't thrilled: on message boards fans have reportedly called her "selfish." Are you surprised by this reaction?

Family has always been important to Candace. I remember when we were flying out to California to go to the ESPYs in '07, and even on that plane ride, she was saying, "You know, I love the game, I want to keep playing, but family is really really important to me." So when she called and told me she was pregnant, I was excited for her. It doesn't mean her basketball career is over. And I think Candace is very dedicated to working out. I don't think she'll have a problem working herself back into great shape, and playing in the league. And to criticize that — it's her personal choice.

Have you ever been offered a men's coaching job?

No I have not.

Have you ever pursued one?

No [Laughs]. The only time I ever coached boys was when I coached my son's AAU team. People have asked me "Why wouldn't you do this?" My attorney, he's like "You've got to coach in the pros. You need to be the first woman to do this." And I said, "You know, my passion is coaching women's basketball." I do believe that's the place I can make the most difference.

If you did coach in the NBA, do you think you'd get through those guys and win?

[Laughs] I don't know. Watching some of these guys, I wouldn't even want to deal with them. They play when they want to play, they make all this money. Though there's a lot of teams and a lot of guys that leave it all on the court. And that's true with women too. So no, I don't really aspire to ever go in that direction.

What's the state of your famously rocky relationship with University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, your chief rival.

I have tremendous respect for Geno. He's a great coach. He's had tremendous success, and I think right now he has the best team in the country. And the fact that we're not playing each other, I know bothers a lot of people. They play a great schedule. We play a great schedule.

Do you guys talk at all?

No. He doesn't have me on speed dial. I don't have him on speed dial. But I do respect him as a coach.

Two seasons ago, Tennessee men's coach Bruce Pearl showed up at one of your games shirtless, with a painted chest, in order to support your team. So to return the favor, you wore a cheerleading outfit to a men's game and sang the school's fight song. After you win 1,000, any chance of putting on the outfit and belting out the song?

No, I don't think I will. It's funny, I was at my son's game the other day [Summitt's son Tyler, 18, is a high school senior]. He had a chance to seal the deal on a game, and he missed his free throws. It went into overtime. So I went over to the student body and made them all get up and start yelling every time the opposing team had the ball. And then I yelled at all the parents to stand up. So somebody said, "All you need is your cheerleading outfit."

We came back and won. I said, "Tyler, did you know what I did?" He said, "Not until I started looking at my text messages." He called me the next day and said "You were the talk of the school."

Do you have any celebration plans for the 1,000th win?

[Laughs] I have none.

Really, no plans?

No. I don't even know when we're going to get it. I've told folks, "I hope we get it this year." They're like "come on coach." After that Auburn butt kicking, who knows?

Is there a chance you'll kick back and have a cold one?

I would say there will be champagne.