Vanderbilt women’s basketball coach Shea Ralph was one of the players that Tennessee fans loved to hate. She was the scowling, snarling, on-court embodiment of Geno Auriemma, the coach we loved to hate.
Tennessee women’s basketball coach Kellie Jolly Harper was one of the players that Tennessee fans flat-out loved. She was a home-grown Tennessee kid whose smarts and intensity and Middle Tennessee twang lent her an uncanny resemblance to her coach, Pat Summitt, whom Tennessee fans revered.
And those are the most obvious reasons why ESPN’s decision to present the Vanderbilt v Tennessee game to tip off We Back Pat Week was an act of scheduling genius.
But the game was also a tribute to Summitt in ways that are not obvious to casual sports fans who are unlikely to watch a women’s basketball game unless there’s some kind of tantalizing hook to reel them in – like the Tennessee-UConn contests of old. The contrast between the guy at Connecticut and the woman at Tennessee was stark. Remember when the two coaches were asked if they’d stop and offer help if they saw the other stranded on the side of the road? Geno said no; Pat said of course she would.
And actually, the fact that women’s basketball is on national television at all is a tribute to Summitt. Players and coaches across the country mark We Back Pat week by accessorizing with splashes of purple symbolizing Alzheimer’s awareness, and money gets raised for the Pat Summitt Foundation, which she and her son, Tyler, established to fight Alzheimer’s disease shortly after her 2011 diagnosis.
Back to last week’s We Back Pat game: Tennessee won 65-51 over the plucky but overmatched Commodores, whose grit, if not their talent, mirrored that of their coach. And although there are coaches up and down and all across the map with Pat Summitt stories to share, it’s hard to imagine two with more direct, intense ties to one of the most revered coaches in all of sports.
If Pat Summitt was the undisputed star of the feature-length made-for-TV film “The Lady Vols Fight Back,” which chronicled the history of the 10-loss team that won a national championship (and she was), Kellie Jolly got second billing. The story of the refuse-to-lose point guard’s remarkable comeback from an early-season ACL tear made her a home state legend. Tennessee fans marvel at how much she sounds like her mentor, especially when she gets intense.
Ralph’s mother, Marsha Lake, was Summitt’s teammate in the 1973 USA World University Games, marking the first time American women were allowed to represent their country on the international hardwood. They took home the silver medal, which probably disappointed this hyper-competitive bunch, but it was paved the way for big things to come. It also gave players like Pat Head and Marsha Lake a chance to form lifelong relationships. Later, Lake would dream that her talented daughter would wear the Tennessee orange.
We know how that turned out. Instead of becoming teammates, the two players with the flowing blond ponytails became fierce rivals. That competition is going to continue between their two teams and will doubtless grow more intense as Ralph starts recruiting and coaching up her own players. She is leading a program at a school with a strong academic tradition, a huge endowment that sits smack dab in the middle of one of the South’s most glamorous cities. Selling Vandy to recruits shouldn’t be hard – Stanford does it – and the Commodores will only get better.
If Tennessee fans are honest, we’ll admit that we would have loved the fire and grit of Shea Ralph, who came back from five career-ending knee injuries by the end of her college career, if she’d been our own. The We Back Pat rivalry between Tennessee and Vanderbilt will become a worthy addition to Pat Summitt’s legacy.
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.