‘A lot of legends have graced this floor’

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

Coach Kellie Harper’s voice cracked ever so briefly as she talked about the women’s basketball program reaching the milestone of 500 wins in Thompson-Boling Arena.

“There have been a lot of memories made here, a lot of memories, a lot of good memories made here,” Harper said after Sunday’s win against Alabama. “A lot of legends have graced this floor.”

The list of Lady Vol legends is long with several having their retired jersey numbers hanging in the rafters of the arena, which started hosting Tennessee basketball games in December 1987. Atop the list, of course, is Pat Summitt who coached those legends and 161 total Lady Vols for 38 years.

Harper, then known as Kellie Jolly, played dozens of games as a Lady Vol point guard and helped hang three national championship banners in the arena in 1996, 1997 and 1998. Two of her teammates, Tamika Catchings and Chamique Holdsclaw, have banners hanging of their retired numbers.

Tamika Catchings (UT Athletics)

Two of her coaches are in the rafters, too: Holly Warlick, whose number was retired, and Summitt, whose tenure from 1974-2012 as head coach, is commemorated. The other players with retired number banners are Candace Parker, Daedra Charles and Bridgette Gordon.

“Just to be part of that is something really unique, it’s something really special and it’s something that I don’t take lightly, and I don’t think our team does as well,” Harper said.

A video clip of Harper talking about No. 500 can be watched here on Twitter.

Since the 1974-75 season, Tennessee’s overall record is 1,320-316 for a remarkable winning percentage of 80.7 and includes games played in Alumni Gym and Stokely Athletics Center. The record in Thompson-Boling Arena is even better in terms of winning percentage at 90.3 and 500-54.

The first Tennessee women’s basketball game was played March 13, 1903, a 10-1 loss to Maryville. Tennessee lost its next 10 games over four seasons before beating Central High School, 28-0. The schedule always started in January – the 1974 team went 25-2 – until Summitt arrived for the 1974-75 season, which started in December. From 1903-1974, Tennessee was 93-58-1.

Missing in the overall numbers is 1960-68 as no records could be found for the basketball coaching tenure of the late Nancy Lay, who was inducted into the Lady Volunteer Hall of Fame in 2009 as an administrator, the same year Harper was inducted as a player.

A faculty member in the Department of Physical Education for 37 years, Lay also coached volleyball and tennis from 1960-68 and was the first coordinator of Women’s Intercollegiate Athletics, a position that later became director of athletics.

Lay also wrote, “The Summitt Season,” which was published in 1988, a copy of which made its way to me in 2016, six months after Summitt died. I went to Atlanta for a book signing of “The Final Season,” and a friend who somehow had Lay’s book originally given to Summitt’s parents, the late Richard and Hazel Head, came to Charis Books & More to give me the book.

Among the signatures were Pat Summitt’s – signed as Trish as her parents called her.

Summitt wrote: Mother and Daddy, You two gave me the gift of life and the support to reach the goals I’ve reached. I could never repay you for all you’ve done for me but I want you both to know I love you dearly and appreciate you both. Enjoy the book! Trish

One other historical nugget, the credit of which goes to Lady Vols historian Debby Jennings, the longtime media relations chief for Summitt: It was Lay, who was one of Summitt’s mentors – along with Helen Watson, who hired Summitt and who Lay dedicated the book to –  who “shortened Patricia to Pat, assuming that’s the name she went by,” Jennings wrote in “The University of Tennessee Basketball Vault: The History of the Lady Vols.”

Summitt was too shy to correct anyone that she was called Trish or Tricia.

Now, the single name of Pat is all that’s needed to identify the legendary coach.

The day Summitt died on June 28, 2016, Harper posted a photo montage on social media in a post that can be viewed here and said: She was my role model as champion, coach, mother & woman.

Summitt would have appreciated that Tennessee got No. 500 in the arena against SEC foe Alabama with the 89-76 win and that one of her former players was on the sideline as the head coach. The Lady Vols will seek No. 501 in the arena against Mississippi State at 6:30 p.m. Thursday before a road trip for an in-state matchup this Sunday at Vanderbilt at 1 p.m.

Tennessee has started 2-0 in the SEC, a rugged conference that actually embodies the anyone-can-win-the-game mantra in sports.

“They want to be good,” Harper said. “I think when you trust the system, and you trust your teammates, and you trust the coaching, you walk out there with great confidence. I think they understand exactly what we need to look like.”

Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at Moxley Carmichael since 2013, started her journalism career at the Knoxville News Sentinel and began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press.


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