Pat Summitt, head coach of the Tennessee women’s basketball team and the all-time winningest coach in college basketball history, spoke with us today as part of our ongoing series, “A Coach’s First Season,” in which we’re following first-year NC State head coach Kellie Harper and the Wolfpack women’s basketball team. Harper was the three-year starting point guard for Summitt at Tennessee, helping the Lady Vols to three straight national titles (in 1996, 1997 and 1998) and a 39-0 record her junior year.
In late November, we posted a Q&A with Coach Harper in which talked about her childhood and playing at Tennessee. Read that here. Read excerpts from our interview with Coach Summitt below.
Coach Harper has said that she talked to you before deciding to come to NC State. Why did you think Coach Harper was a good fit for NC State and NC State a good fit for her?
As I watched her career as a player, she was very skilled but also had great leadership skills. She had a toughness about her. She came back from an injury [during her sophomore year] quicker than anybody else has ever done in our program and went on to help us win a championship [in 1997]. I tell some people, “Not everybody has ‘it,’ but she has ‘it,’ whatever ‘it’ is.” She has the knowledge and the communication skills, and she has a great feel for the game and for the people who are a part of the program, her student-athletes and her coaches. Just watching her career, I’m really excited for her, and I think things are going to get better and better for her, each and every season.
When you think of Coach Harper, what are the moments that stand out?
How she overcame her ACL injury [at the beginning of her sophomore year and came back [after missing the first 16 games] and played for us. Seeing her fight through the adversity and coming back — her toughness stood out. The doctor said, “She was so strong.” You’re talking about rehabbing her knee in, I want to say it was, two-and-a-half months. It was amazing; unheard of. But it was because she was that focused and driven and determined to get back to her teammates to help them win. And it wasn’t about her; it was about getting back for everybody else—her teammates, the coaching staff. She just gets it. Not everybody gets it; she does. . . . She led by example, and she was very special. Watching her in high school, I didn’t anticipate that, I didn’t see that. . . . She is just a natural leader.
In your book Raise the Roof, you wrote that “Every once in a while you meet yourself in a player. That’s how it was with Kellie and me—we just knew each other right away.” What do you see in Coach Harper that reminds her of you?
I did see a lot of myself watching Kellie. She was incredibly focused and extremely competitive. She had great leadership skills. And though she wasn’t the most athletic player or necessarily the best player on the team, she had the best feel of any of our players in terms of how to bring that team together. They all respected her, and you could tell. They all looked at Kellie to see what she was thinking. I knew then, and I just thought all along, that she’s going to be a great coach. I think with her parents, the type of discipline she had and the understanding of the game she had so early, she was mature beyond her years.
What advice have you given to Coach Harper in terms of following former NC State Coach Kay Yow and building a program at NC State?
I told her that you’ve got to get your staff in place and do the best job that you can. It’s not that she’s going to be like Coach Yow. . . . As I told her, at this point in time, you’ve got to be comfortable with your system and how you want to teach your student-athletes on and off the court. . . . The name of the game is recruiting. You’ve got to get out and find a special player here and there and mold your team together.
It’s been nearly a year since Kay Yow’s death. What did she mean to you and to women’s athletics?
I think Kay had an incredible impact on all of us in the women’s game. I have tremendous respect for Coach Yow. She is one of the greatest friends I’ve ever had and one of the best assistant coaches I’ve ever worked with. . . . She was my assistant coach in Los Angeles when we won the gold medal, and she taught me a lot more than I taught her. . . . She taught me how to step back and allow the two players that played at Tennessee who made the Olympic team to not to try to coach them every day and make an example out of them, but to allow them enjoy the process. When we were training, there was time she would say, “I think this session needs to be over.” As a head coach, feeling the weight of the world on bring home a gold medal, I thought more was better. And I learned that less is more. Coach Yow taught me that.
What do you think the NC State players and fans should know about Coach Harper?
She has a wealth of knowledge and great feel for the game of basketball and a great feel for creating an environment that is healthy and good for the team. And, she’ll bring out the best. She will bring out the best. She understands you have to raise that bar, and when they reach that place, you raise the bar a little higher and keep expecting more and more. All these student-athletes have a lot to give, but coaches have to be the ones to demand it. . . . I have no doubt that Kellie will do great things [at NC State].