Thank you, Coach….

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June 28, 2016

We all woke up to some very sad news this morning. We lost an icon. Pat Summitt passed away at the young age of 64. There will be countless stories in the coming days from those that met her and those that only knew of her legend; both of equal value.

Here is my story…

In 1997, I was offered an assistantship in housing at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. This is an offer that would change my life forever. Yes, I gained valuable work experience and I celebrate and utilize my masters degree in college student personnel each and every day. The real education came from the people I was around and worked with. One of those people, although always just in passing, was Pat Summitt.

My first year at Tennessee, the Lady Vols won their 3rd consecutive national championship. I attended a few games, attended the championship parade, and was in awe of the passion of Volunteer fans. I had made a wise choice.

During the summer of 1998, Pat’s basketball camps were in a building where I was working. You would think Pat would be too “big time” to be around during camp check-in, but there she was. When Pat walked into a room, her presence was overpowering. My posture got exponentially better and you could see all the eyes catching a peek at her, but because everyone respected her so much, no one seemed to stare. It was something to behold.

Being an attentive staff member, I stayed nearby at the ready to put out any fire that arose. (Picture me in a polo, khaki shorts, and a walkie-talkie holstered to my hip).

All she had to do was look my way. Her Jedi-like power drew me to her side. There I was with her piercing blue eyes burning a hole through me. She leans my direction and softly says, “Do you think we can get these bathrooms unlocked down here?” At that moment, I understood ‘the look.’ “Yes, absolutely. Right away.”

(Why were the restrooms locked, you ask? Well, the campers the week before found them as a safe haven for, well, things teenagers do at camps)

When Pat spoke, you moved! I darted up the stairs to the front desk. “Quick, Pat Summitt needs the bathrooms unlocked downstairs.” In hindsight, I could have been more subtle and reworded my request, but to me, this was a dire emergency. I wasn’t going to let Coach Summitt down. Not today. Not ever! After sprinting across the Presidential Courtyard on the UT campus, I secured a master key and saved the day by unlocking the restrooms. I gave one of those “we should be all set now, Coach” looks. She nodded her approval and I had my story.

The rest of the camp was more of the same. Pat was always around, so I rarely slept. I didn’t want to miss a moment. This was a time of year many of her best friends would come and help with her camps. They all called her “Trish.” Reach for the Summitt (add it to your reading list today) had just come out and here I was hanging out with “characters” in her book. Did they think it was weird that I asked them to sign my copy of the book? Probably, but they obliged.

Right around this same time, I secured a fall practicum with Lady Vol academics. The practicum would earn me 3 credits by working ~10 hours/week in the Lady Vol academic center. I would monitor study hall, assist Lady Vol athletes (across all sports) in getting plugged into campus resources and even helped design a program called “Life after Lady Vols” that emphasized career and professional development. I would wake Semeka Randall in study hall routinely (that girl liked to sleep). It was a great semester and I always felt like the luckiest guy in the world.

The biggest highlight of the semester actually happened at the very beginning. On maybe the second day of the practicum my supervisor Kerry Howland invited me to the Lady Vol Athletics staff meeting. You want a minion like me at this staff meeting? I of course was happy to attend. Nervous as hell, but happy to attend.

So I wander into a large lounge at Thompson-Boling Arena where couches and chairs are scattered everywhere. I randomly select a chair and about 5 minutes later that presence has entered the room again. Coach Summitt picks the chair right in front of me. At this point, I am starting to wonder if I am in some sort of alternate universe. At the beginning of the meeting, we went around the room and introduced ourselves. “Pat Summitt, Head Coach, women’s basketball.” I am now wondering if I am the only person in the room thinking “no $h!%…of course you’re Pat Summitt.” But as many have attested, that was Pat. Humble and great, but not too great to attend a staff meeting and introduce herself just like anyone else.

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Of course I kept the staff meeting agenda

In June of 1999 I returned to work at Central Michigan University (my undergraduate alma mater). That fall, CMU was opening a Leadership Institute and had just announced their keynote speaker for the occasion. You guessed it: Pat Summitt. Marcy Weston who was the Associate Athletic Director at the time caught wind of my Tennessee connection and invited me to be Pat’s guide for the day. I jumped at the opportunity.

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Pat would land via UT jet at Mount Pleasant’s municipal airport and Marcy would bring her to campus where I would greet her and get her from place to place. There was a chance of rain, so I was practicing holding an umbrella for someone. No seriously. I was practicing this so I got it right. When Pat arrived I was introduced (after she shunned the umbrella) and of course says, “Hi, I’m Pat Summitt.” I replied with something to the effect of, “I’m Aaron, Tennessee, (inaudible), (did I just black out?), welcome”…or something like that.

The next couple of hours were surreal. Walking Pat to a ribbon cutting ceremony. Walking Pat to a reception. Walking Pat to Warriner (now Plachta) Auditorium. This was as close as I was going to get to feeling like a Secret Service agent. To top it off, I was able to sit back, relax and enjoy her speech with 1,225 others in attendance. No notes. No podium. Just a lavalier microphone and Pat pacing the stage as everyone held on to each and every morsel of knowledge she was giving us on the topic of leadership.

I should have known not to relax! After the talk, throngs of audience members lined up at the front of the stage hoping for Pat to sign her book. Over the speakers, I hear “Aaron, can you help coach up here?” I bolted down the aisle and there I was passing books to Pat as she signed them one by one. Always coaching, she looks at me (yes, THAT look again) and says, “Can you pass me the books with the covers already open so I can sign them more efficiently?” I became a master book cover opener right away! She was always teaching.

I was able to say “goodbye” to Pat backstage and thank her (probably nervously and repeatedly) for coming to CMU. I sat outside in the Warriner Mall until I saw what I presume was her jet fly overhead and back to Knoxville.

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“Discipline helps you finish a job, and finishing is what separates excellent work from average work.”

Speaking of back to Knoxville, that is where I returned in 2001 to work in Arts and Sciences academic advising and eventually work with Lady Vol athletes again as their college advisor. I always enjoyed my interactions with student-athletes. Returning to Tennessee allowed me to build and renew old relationships in the athletic department. Kerry Howland (my practicum advisor) from earlier would reach out to me to meet with her athletes for advising before they declared their majors. About 2 years after my return to Tennessee she began asking me to present to her Lady Vol First Year Experience course. This course was designed to help new student-athletes find campus resources, build community across all sports, and explore opportunities at Tennessee to get the most out of their college experience.

Before the semester started, Kerry sent me her syllabus for the course. Curious, I was wondering what other topics were being covered in this course. As my eyes scrolled through each week, I had to pause. Week 4: Guest Speaker: Pat Summitt, Week 5: Guest Speaker: Aaron Todd. Wait a minute. I have to follow that!?!? You’re darn right I was going to be prepared. One way I prepared? I attended the Week 4 lecture. Kerry allowed me to sit in the back of the room. I again had the opportunity be schooled by the greatest. After class, I shook her hand, probably mumbled something stupid again, but walked back to my car floating on cloud nine.

A year later, my friend Tracy was looking at graduate MBA programs and was considering UT. During her visit, we ate dinner at a restaurant on the Tennessee River. For some back story, Tracy designates Pat as her hero. At dinner I was facing the elevator and some Lady Vol players stepped off. Suddenly, there she was, walking our way and talking. At first I didn’t say anything to Tracy. I just kind of let the moment play out. As she got closer, Tracy turned and looked back at me. I don’t remember exactly what she mouthed, but I imagine it was something like “OH. MY. GOD!” That was the presence of Pat. Tracy chose to attend UT. I didn’t recruit her. Pat did. Tracy was able to attend one of Pat’s 1st year class lectures with me the next fall. You realize I went back each year, don’t you? It could be the exact same talk and the inspiration would never wear off. It still hasn’t.

I could go on and on (and probably already have), but if you’re still reading, I have one last memory. After a few years back at Tennessee, Kerry asked me to be an honorary guest coach for a Lady Vols game. “Really?” “Yeah, you will arrive early, tour the locker room, be introduced to the team and coaching staff, sit behind the bench during the game, be in the locker room for halftime, and then attend the post game press conference.”

BE IN THE LOCKER ROOM FOR HALFTIME?!?!?!?

Folks, I was able to sit in her classroom at halftime.

After being introduced and nodding at some of my advisees, I watched as Coach covered the game plan, discussed opponent tendencies, and stressed defense and rebounding. The master was at work. There was no rah, rah speech. ALL eyes were on their leader. The team exited first and I followed them to my seat behind the bench. I wasn’t the only guest coach. This program was also a nice reward for high dollar donors (unlike myself). I enjoyed my Coke and popcorn and most of all I soaked up Pat being Pat during timeouts. The eye contact. The focus. The intensity. The legend.

The ladies did NOT have a great first half. In fact, they trailed. This made me a little nervous about my halftime locker room experience. I walked into the locker room to find just the players and a dry erase board. No coaches. Individually, players would walk up to the board and write things like “box out” “make 22 go left” “spacing” etc., etc.. The teaching was already taking place. In fact, it never stopped. This was an exercise of reflection, ownership for the process, and active learning.

The coaching staff walked in. Free of tension. Nobody was panicking. The room was not just owned by Coach Summitt. It was owned by every player and coach. Class was now in session.

Coach looked up and down the dry erase board and affirmed what the pupils had already known. You see, education is as much about unlocking thought and potential already possessed within as it is about teaching. The halftime syllabus was not only designed by a group of coaches huddled in a neighboring room, it was built by the players themselves.

Coach melded each individuals’ contributions into a seamless lesson. It is not hyperbole for me to say this is the greatest class I have ever attended. Every word and every action was intentional. Over her shoulder was a game clock that was connected to the arena game clock. She knew exactly when the bell was going to ring. With about 3 minutes left until halftime expired she finished the lesson with a loud, yet controlled message. “Are you going to let them walk into our house and walk all over us?” “No, coach.” (Of note, there was always call and response to questions. At no point was there passive learning). “Well, let’s get out there and defend our floor.”

Tennessee went on to blow out Dayton in the 2nd half. I attended the post game press conference which was cool, but nothing and I mean nothing will compare to being in that locker room with one of the greatest teachers the world has ever known.

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The world thanks you Coach Summitt.

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2 Comments

  1. I am sure your heart is heavy today Aaron. Thanks for sharing the
    story. I knew you thought highly of Pat Summit but never knew
    truly how much you thought of her and why. What a special gift those memories are. I feel today I have gained more insight as to who you are since you came into Katies life.
    Bette

  2. Outstanding presentation of a heartfelt association with a legend. You were blessed to have the opportunities you present. Best wishes.

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