Bruce Pearl listened quietly as Pat Summitt was heaped with praise during the invocation at the Big Orange Tip Off Club luncheon last week.
What? It was just 10 years ago, Jan. 11, 2011. Bill Haslam was wrapping up his time as Knoxville mayor and heading to Nashville as the first governor from this town in a long, long time. Betty Bean was still writing daily and Jake Mabe was working hard, his headache tsunami in the future. Just 10 years ago but it seems like 50. Hope you enjoy these tales.
It was game day for Pearl’s slumping Vols, who would face the Memphis Tigers that night and were hoping to break out of a December slump that hung four Ls on their record. He had just come in from the ceremony down on the Riverwalk where Summitt was awarded with the first star on the new Riverwalk of Fame. He wanted to get back to his team, but he also wanted to honor Summitt and make a little contact with the fans who had come to hear her speak at the Tip Off Club.
Pearl, who is facing an eight-game suspension for lying to NCAA, was sandwiched between the invocation and the legend that is Pat Summitt. He did a masterful job of handling the orange-clad crowd of superfans:
“That was a wonderful prayer,” he said. “Except. Have you not been paying attention to my record and her record this year? The girl don’t need your prayers. I do. We need Him. We need her. We need everybody.”
Pearl was pitch-perfect, and so was Summitt, who let her guard down so the crowd could see how touched she was by the honor she had just received.
“What a day! The star – I didn’t know what it was going to mean,” she said. Her voice cracked and she fought back tears as she said she wished that the stern man who raised her, her late father, Richard Head, could have been there to see the ceremony.
“I know he’s smiling.”
She talked about the hayloft basketball court her dad built, and how she had no choice but to be tough when she played hoops with “three older brothers who beat the crap out of me. I decided I was going to fight back.”
She told the crowd that she is pleased with her team’s progress and said she believes they have turned a significant corner. She singled out freshman guard Meighan Simmons, whom she called the toughest player on the team, for special praise – to a point.
“Meighan has never seen a shot she didn’t love – I’ve seen some of her shots I didn’t love. But she has a chance to be one of the best guards that ever played here.”
She talked about her relationship with the late John Wooden, who took Summitt and her players under his wing when they would visit Los Angeles.
“I went to his apartment probably a dozen times. He got on the bus with us and took us to his favorite restaurant, and when he’d talk to us, you could hear a pin drop.”
Summitt hinted that recruiting efforts are going to bear fruit.
“Everybody in this room is going to be happy with our recruiting. I’m leaving here Friday to go visit one of the best post players in the future. There’s no doubt we’re going to be a much, much better team in the next two years.”
Betty Bean wrote this story.