She was a tall girl with her hair pulled up on top of her head, wearing cut-off jeans and pumping gas at a little gas station/country store. It was a hot, summer afternoon and we were right in the middle of Henrietta, Tennessee, a wide spot in the little road that ran between Clarksville and Ashland City on the way to Nashville.
I was seventeen years old, and only a few months out of high school in Nashville, and I had registered to attend college at Samford University in Birmingham. Not long before I was to leave for school, my mom informed me that Birmingham was too far away for me to come home until Thanksgiving. Reality set inI loved home and I loved Tennessee, so I realized that maybe there were other schools besides Samford. Some of my high school friends had picked the University of Tennessee at Martin, so I decided to check it out.
I had a cousin in Clarksville, about 50 miles northeast of Nashville, and she was thrilled that I was considering UT Martin. She had friends there and she wanted to drive me over to meet onein Henrietta. When we got out of the car, the tall girl smiled, brushed the hair out her eyes and said, “Hi, how y’all doin?”
That was my introduction to Pat Head. My cousin told her that I was an athlete and that I was headed to Martin. She seemed pleased, and the three of us sat around the store and talked between fill-ups. Pat was a year older than me and would be returning as a sophomore. I knew immediately that I liked her, but what I didn’t know at the time was that this country girl from Henrietta, Tennessee would go on to be one of the most famous and winningest college basketball coaches in history.
Once I got to UT Martin, my high school friends talked me into “going Greek” and rushing a sorority. Pat belonged to a rival sorority, and I later learned that had I rushed her sorority, I probably would’ve been her little sister. As an athlete, I was very competitive, but Pat’s sorority usually won all the athletic events. Consequently, I found myself spending more time with her and her sorority than with my own sorority sisters, and I eventually moved across the hall from Pat in the dorm.
In addition to playing for UTM’s women’s basketball team, Pat also played for their women’s volleyball team. In fact, she talked me into trying out for the team, and I made it. This was in the early 1970s, and at that time, women’s volleyball was not as sophisticated a sport as it is today. I recently found a picture of the team from 1972. Pat was number 55, and I was number 15. We were so young!
We had to raise the money to travel to our away games by having bake sales, car washes and any other way we could think of to get funds. We traveled in an old university van, which didn’t even have seats for everyone.
I remember one away game in particularit was against one of our rivals, Murray State University, just over the state line in Kentucky. Pat and I had double dated with two fraternity guys the night before, and I suppose we had partied maybe a little too much. So, we were a little late showing up at the van. When we arrived, our coach was waiting on us, arms crossed, and since the van was already full, we had to ride on the floor in the back. By the time we got to Murray State, we were not exactly feeling in top shape. It was a long ride up and a long ride home. To make matters worse, we lost the volleyball match. We learned that some lessons are harder and more painful than others.
But Pat was quite the basketball player. During one home game with our in-state rival, Austin Peay State University, her mom and dad drove up from Henrietta to Martin to see her play. Towards halftime, Pat went down with an injured knee. She came out early from halftime to shoot around, but it was obvious that her knee hurt too much for her to finish the game. After the game, I advised her parents to take her to Nashville to be seen by “Pinky” Lipscomb, who was the doctor who handled most athletic injuries in Nashville at the time. Her parents initially took her to a doctor in Clarksville, who told them the same thing. Mr. Head said, “That’s what that little girl told us.” From then on, I was “that little girl” to Mr. Head.
Pat had her surgery for a torn ACL, and when she returned to school, she had to rehabilitate that knee. Her rehab consisted of two tube socks tied together with weights in them. She would sit on a bedside table in our dorm room and lift those weights daily. There were tears in her eyes as she struggled to lift her weighed-down leg the first couple of times. However, with determination and strength, she persevered and eventually she increased the weights and kept on going. In fact, she got her knee in shape in time to make the U.S. Women’s National Basketball Team. She was able to play in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal (the first year for women’s basketball), and they took home a silver medal. Although today, surgeons only need to poke little holes for the procedure, she would carry a huge scar on her leg from the injury in that game.
Pat graduated from UT Martin when I was just a junior. Upon graduating, she was offered a Graduate Assistantship at UT Knoxville. My parents agreed to let me transfer, so I went with Pat to Knoxville, and we found an off-campus apartment to share. We were quite a sight, rolling into townwe had no money and very little furniture. We visited a downtown Knoxville discount furniture store, and we found a black vinyl couch. They only wanted $200 for it, but Pat insisted on haggling with them. Feigning desperation, the salesmen sold us the couch for $150. We were pretty proud of ourselves for getting a good deal, until once we got it home and the sofa’s springs broke. We fixed it, but laughed at what a “deal” we’d gotten. That old sofa was terribly uncomfortable, but we thought it looked so good!
We never had to worry about food, because Pat’s mom always sent us wonderful “care packages” with homemade sausages and jellies and all kinds of meat. Pat and I arrived at an understandingshe cooked and I cleaned. We always had people over to eat, and I ended up staying in the kitchen, cleaning up. One day I decided I was tired of cleaning up, so I made spaghetti and, to the surprise of both of usit was actually good! From then on, we split the kitchen duties, except Pat knew how to use a pressure cooker and, of course, her cooking was better than mine at that time. However, looking back, I’ve come to realize that I really learned to cook by watching her.
Upon her arrival in Knoxville, Pat was surprised to learn that the former coach had decided to take a sabbatical, so she wouldn’t be the graduate assistant, but rather, the head coach of the women’s basketball team. This was after having graduated herself only a few months before.
If I ever had any ideas about playing for her, Pat quickly dispelled them. After I saw how hard she worked her players, I realized that she had actually done me a favor in not letting her roommate try out for the team.
The only girls I knew on campus at that time were her basketball players. I went out with them one night and we all got home rather late. Needless to say, she knew who I had been with and also knew we’d probably been imbibing that night. The next day in practice, she put four trashcans in the corners of the gym and ran the girls until they threw up. Lesson learnedI never went out with them again. Her players were always amazed at the things she knew about themthey used to say she had eyes all over the campus!
Since I was not playing, I kept the books for the games and did whatever Pat needed me to do. On road trips, I washed uniforms and drove one of the university station wagons to the away games. I recall one particular game with Tennessee Tech, which was our major rival at the time. Pat had asked every person on campus to attend, and we managed to get a hundred or so in the old alumni gym. In those days, that was a pretty good attendance number for one of our games. This, in fact, foreshadowed Pat’s ability to “put fans in the seats.” She was to become incredibly instrumental at raising the awareness and popularity of women’s basketball.
The game with Tech was close, and I was keeping the books. One of their better players fouled out, and Tech’s coach accused me of cheating, stating her player only had four, not five, fouls. I knew I was right, and I refused to back down, and the foul stood. Pat knew that I was very ethical and took that job seriously, and she was proud of me for standing my ground. We went on to win that game by only a few points, and it stands out in my memory, to this day.
That first year of her coaching was packed with highs and lowsPat relived every loss and I relived them with her. After a loss, she would always want to fall asleep to Linda Ronstadt’s “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” playing on our old record player. It’s amazing to me how when that song comes up on my iPod or on the oldies station on my car radio, it spins me back in time to those bittersweet nights.
In 2003, Pat (by then, she was Pat Head Summitt) was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. I was working for BellSouth, and I attended that night and sat at the BellSouth table. Also at the table were Lisa Patton and Ann Holt, two Middle Tennessee TV personalities. Ann’s husband, Kenny Blackburn (with whom I worked at BellSouth), told them I had been Pat’s roommate. I saw Pat’s parents, who were sitting a few tables over, and I asked Lisa and Ann if they would like to meet them. We went to the Heads’ table, and Ms. Hazel (Pat’s Mom) was so excited to meet them. Afterwards, I told Pat that even though she was one of the most famous coaches in the world, her mom was more excited to meet local TV stars Lisa and Ann! I still laugh about that.
Obviously, Pat’s career has come a long way since those early days. She holds the record for the most wins for an NCAA basketball coachmen’s or women’s team in any division. She coached 38 years, from that rocky (top) first season, 1974, until 2012, always with her beloved Lady Vols. She was the first NCAA coach (and one of only four college coaches overall) to achieve at least a thousand wins. She was named the Naismith Basketball Coach of the Century in April, 2000 and in 2009, the Sporting News placed her at number 11 on its list of the 50 Greatest Coaches of All Time in all sports. Then in 2012, Pat was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Just as there were the highs and lows of that first season all those years ago, along with all of the brilliance of Pat’s success came the 2011 diagnosis that she had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. She stepped down from the head coaching job in 2012, but stayed on with Tennessee as head coach emeritus of the Lady Vols. She has been an inspiration to so many, and even with her health issues, she is still contributing to the betterment of lives and helping to champion the awareness of Alzheimer’s disease.
I’m in no way surprised at either her success or her strength and perseverance in dealing with her health issues. She’s one of the truest, most fun-loving, and yet, driven people I have ever met. I pray for her every day, and it has been one of my greatest blessings to have been a friend of that tall, gas-pumping country girl in cut-offs from Henrietta, Tennessee; I will always cherish those roller-coaster early years and value the impact she has had on my life.
Suzanne Allen recently retired from AT&T and is a life-long Vols fan and resident of Nashville.