I made a raw impression at the age of 18. I was a frank, elbowy girl wearing a home-stitched skirt and cheap shoes, with a rampant mane of hair that ended in a flip. I arrived at UT-Martin carrying one small “soup case,” which is how my sorority sisters claim that I said the word suitcase in my Tennessee hills accent.
The moment I stepped into Clement Hall, the women’s dormitory, I felt backward. My only coloring came from fresh air; I’d never worn mascara or blush. All around me were women in bright cosmetics, their hair teased and sprayed. I’d heard that UT-Martin was a destination for rich girls from Memphis and these must be them, I figured. They seemed impossibly moneyed and made-up. There were prim girls in neat-buttoned cardigans, hip ones in bell-bottom trousers with sash belts, daring ones in miniskirts and knee-high boots that showed off their trim legs.
I shrank when I looked down. The hemline sewn by my mother fell below my knee, to midcalf.
Even the way the other girls spoke seemed well-heeled. They talked with gentle lilts and they didn’t say “ain’t,” whereas I said “yonder” and “reckon” and “done went and gone,” and I wondered how Daddy would manage back home in the fields all by “hisself” — judging by their manicured nails, they’d never had dirt on their palms.
Back home, “Trisha” could bale hay and drive a tractor, but at Martin she was inferior, and a figure of fun. I sought out Esther Stubblefield, whom I knew from playing against her in high school. Esther had grown up only 20 miles from me, but she was town reared one county over in Springfield, which had a brick courthouse and sidewalks, so I viewed her as the height of sophistication.
Esther greeted me warmly, but as she gave me the once-over, she realized how country and naive I was. She decided to toy with me.
“You should sign up for Russian,” she advised me. “It’s an easy A.”
I had never been away from Henrietta, Tenn., before, except for one overnight trip with the 4-H Club. The Martin campus had fewer than 5,000 students and sat in a moderate-size town halfway between Nashville and Memphis, merely a two-hour drive from home. It was hardly cosmopolitan — but to me it felt as foreign as the other side of the globe, and I was scared to death of it. So scared that the very first weekend, I ran back to the farm. I found a ride to Henrietta and walked through the door of our farmhouse with my laundry under my arm.
My father said, “What are you doing here?”
I told him I just felt like coming back for a visit. But we both knew the truth: I was frightened.
“Look, I don’t want you on the road every weekend,” he said. “And the next time you come, don’t bring your dirty clothes with you.”
What he meant was, grow up. When I got a little tearful, he said, “I don’t want to hear any more about that.” So I went back to campus and set about trying somehow to fit in. Slowly, hesitantly, I tried to meet people.
But mostly I stayed on the margin, dreading any conversation that would betray my lack of social skills. I’d never thought about how I sounded before, but now when I heard myself I decided I’d just as soon not speak. I clamped my mouth firmly shut, and I hardly opened it, stayed so quiet that no one knew my correct name. Everyone just assumed that because I was enrolled as Patricia Sue Head, I went by “Pat,” and I didn’t have the voice to say that no one ever called me that; my name was “Trisha.” But rather than speak up and hear the hick from Cheatham County come out, I let it go. So I became Pat. It sounded stronger, I decided.
Learning from Nadine
The women’s athletic program, still in its infancy under the direction of a physical education teacher, had a budget of exactly $500 for three sports: volleyball, basketball and tennis. Martin’s basketball team was barely deserving of the term “varsity.” It had evolved from intramurals only a year earlier, and it still played the silly, abbreviated game — six players to a side, with three players from each team confined to each end of the floor — that was organized girls’ basketball in several states at the time.
Our uniforms were plain, school-issued physical education gear that everyone wore to their gym classes, sleeveless blue jerseys of heavy cotton twill with navy shorts. We passed them out by size and we put numerals on them with athletic tape, until Nadine Gearin, the coach of all three of the school’s women’s teams, got us some real ones.
Nadine had a friend in the fabric department of a local store who gave her a sheet of scrap felt. She cut out the numbers and offered to sew them on, but we said, “No, we can sew ’em on ourselves.” But you could tell how few of us took home economics. They were the crookedest bunch of numbers you ever saw. Some girls had their numbers up around the neckline, and some down around the waist. Some had one number lower than the other. Esther was No. 21, and hers, of course, were perfect. I was No. 55, and mine were pretty straight. My official team photo shows me with my long hair wound in a bun with strands falling out, striped tube socks up to my knee pads, and high-topped Converse.
Nadine was an unpaid volunteer who gave us her time so that we’d have an opportunity to play. She didn’t know a lot about basketball — and she told us she didn’t know a lot. But she tried; she bought, at her own expense, every book she could find about strategy, and to her credit she asked questions. She’d ask, “Who do you think should play guard?”
Sometimes our input wasn’t the most dedicated or useful.
“Miss Gearin,” we’d say, “it’s fraternity rush this week and we’re supposed to be at the Pike house by 8. We need to stop practice at 7:15 so we can get our makeup on and be ready.”
Nadine would just say sweetly, “Well, okay.”
That was the state of women’s basketball in 1970, and my starting point. There were no mentors or so-called coaching trees for women, like there were for ambitious young male coaches who grew out of the personality cults around legends like Clair Bee in New York, Frank McGuire in North Carolina, Adolph Rupp in Kentucky, or John Wooden in California. Nor were there rich regional playgrounds for women, like the schoolyard network of Philadelphia. But if Nadine didn’t teach us much Xs and Os, she taught us respect and teamwork, and she took us where we wanted to go.
‘Pretty Pat Head’ and the Pacers
We were so poor we didn’t even have a team bus. The Lady Pacers traveled in two borrowed station wagons, with Nadine and a team manager behind the wheels. We’d cram three in the front seat and four people in back, and the tallest of us suffered the most. Imagine half a dozen girls, a couple of whom stood 5 feet 10 or above, climbing out of a car with cramped legs and trying to play ball.
Our training meals were bologna-and-cheese sandwiches at a rest stop or McDonald’s. We didn’t stay in hotels — no money. Instead we slept on mats on the floor of the gym where we played the next day. Our arch rival was Tennessee Tech over in Cookeville, a 215-mile drive, which meant a four-hour trip jammed together in the station wagons. Then we slept stiffly in sleeping bags on the hardwood floor of the Tennessee Tech field house.
What a frumpy, earthbound, starved and sleep-deprived little team we were, playing in dank, humid gyms that reeked of industrial cleanser and floor varnish and ointment, with a faint waft of hairspray and perfume underneath female perspiration. But I loved it, treasured the cheap uniform that didn’t breathe, the damp jersey that got heavier the more I sweated, and couldn’t wait to tie up my clumsy flat-soled sneakers, made of canvas with metal eyelets for laces. We knew nothing about training, or about our own bodies; every day of practice was an exercise in curious self-discovery.
Somehow in my first season we went 16-3 to win the Tennessee state title. At the end of it we went back to Tennessee Tech for a tournament, in which all the women’s teams in the state converged for a single weekend. After driving four hours to Cookeville and sleeping on a floor, we played six games in two days — two on Friday night, and then four on Saturday. One right after the other.
Without washing our uniforms.
We got about 15 minutes to rest between games. By late Saturday afternoon, our knees were buckling. Nadine dealt with it by cracking ammonia sticks and waving them under our nostrils. We didn’t have conditioning or weights, but we had ammonia. If she thought I looked a little peaked, she would whip out one of her ammonia packets and break it open and thrust it under my nose until I wrenched my head away, my eyes watering. It actually worked, right up until our sixth game. We lost it to Belmont, and by then we were so weary we didn’t care, we were just ready to go home.
It hardly occurred to us that we were entitled to better, or more. Until, at the end of that season, the UT-Martin athletic department’s way of rewarding us for winning the state title was to invite us to an awards banquet — for the men’s team, which that season had won just three games. While we went 16-3, the guys had gone 3-20. Yet we sat for hours, watching guys receive plaques and awards and congratulations for their efforts. Finally, they paused the proceedings to briefly introduce us. That was our recognition: We got to stand up for a minute.
It was an era when sports pages didn’t cover women much, and if they did, they used terms like “the sex that burns the toast,” a phrase I actually read in an issue of Sports Illustrated. The local paper was kind to us and gave us good coverage, but on one occasion it actually referred to me — I promise this is true — as “Pretty Pat Head.” Which I actually didn’t mind in the slightest.
This may sound odd, but despite everything, those of us who played basketball in the deprived, formative era of the early 1970s wouldn’t trade the experience. In all the years afterward it gave us a pride of ownership, a sense that we were the architects of our own game, and that our success was entirely self-earned; we’d never been handed anything. And there was a lot to be said for building yourself from the ground up.
If we got any money from our universities, it was a pittance, usually bestowed by a benevolent, or not so benevolent, male administrator. Athletic departments of that era weren’t yet big businesses, but rather fiefdoms ruled by crew-cut former gridiron stars, most of whom thought anything spent on a female in athletics came at the expense of men.
We got more support from our own fathers. At Martin’s games, you’d see our dads sidle up to Bettye Giles, a physical education teacher who oversaw the women’s athletic teams, and press bills in her hand to help feed us or pay for our gas. My father was one of them. On more than one occasion, Richard slipped a $100 bill into the purse of Miss Giles.
What little other money we had, we raised. At UT-Martin, we raked yards and had bake sales. Once, we peddled raffle tickets for a bicycle — I sold my share of chances but forgot to write down the names of the poor folks I sold tickets to. They never knew how they got cheated.
Turning a corner in women’s sports
Three events in 1972 changed everything for us. First, a group of dedicated women administrators formed the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, because the NCAA didn’t yet care enough about females to bother with us. The AIAW stepped in to govern women’s sports and established championships for us — including a 16-team basketball tournament that was eventually replaced by the women’s NCAA tournament.
The second big event was the announcement that women’s basketball would be an Olympic sport for the first time at the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal. And the third, though we didn’t know much about it yet, was the passing of Title IX, the little-noticed portion of the Equal Opportunity in Education Act that stated “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Although it would be several years before it was fully implemented, that legislative phrase led to athletic scholarships for women.
What these developments did was to make winning available to women. Previously, competition was a hobby — not a very socially acceptable one. But now that there were trophies, gold medals and prestige on the table, interest in women’s sports surged. Everyone likes winning, no matter what form it takes — and even older male football administrators had to respect an Olympic gold-medal sport.
I felt the effects immediately, and personally. Universities abandoned their archaic inhibitions and adopted a standardized full-court game, including UT-Martin. I could at last play five-on-five. I began to tell people, “I want to play in the Olympics.”
I spent that summer teaching myself the full-court game. I got hold of a Fundamentals of Basketball textbook from our physical education department and studied the diagrams. I went back to Henrietta and into the hay barn with my brothers, and we walked through sets — sometimes using a dog or a bucket as a stand-in.
In the fall, we took it all back to school. Nadine let us put in our plays and run our own practices and coach each other — Esther would cuss at me to defend or box out. “Quit passing it; you need to be the one shooting,” Esther would snap. We practiced against six and seven defenders to make things more difficult and assigned double-teams so we learned to fight out of them. We came up with our own training regimens and set our own curfew. When other girls were going to the frat socials, we talked over game plans in the dorm and went to bed early.
Olympic feats for a small program
The result was a huge season for a little team from Tennessee. We went 20-8, and qualified for the inaugural national championship tournament. A review of the box scores shows that I averaged 19 points and 15 rebounds a game, so the plays we designed in the hayloft must have worked. I carried us to the southern regional championship with an upset of North Carolina when I scored 31 of our 54 points.
On March 16, 1972, the 16 most elite teams in the country gathered for the first AIAW national championship tournament in Normal, Ill. It was a 500-mile road trip, but somehow, Bettye and Nadine begged and borrowed the money to send us. After we won the state tournament in Knoxville, Bettye went to a drug store on the main drag and bought a large glass piggy bank and literally carried it around on the street, seeking donations. For a snapshot of the women’s game in 1972 imagine a full-grown woman walking around with a piggy bank, panhandling for change.
Once again, we piled into those station wagons. It was a seven-hour trip to Normal, where we actually got to stay in a motel — sleeping four to a room. We were the only team there without proper uniforms or warmups. In an old photo of the 16 teams, you can tell which ones we are: We’re bare-armed in sleeveless jerseys, with no jackets.
We didn’t last long. We won our first-round game over Long Beach State, but in the next we were put firmly down by Mississippi State College for Women, 49–25. Still, it was an education to be there, because we got to see different styles of basketball, the best of which was the revelatory up-tempo game of Immaculata University, the “Mighty Macs,” who went on to win the first of their three straight national titles under Hall of Famer Cathy Rush.
It was the high point of my collegiate career; UT-Martin never made it back to the national tournament while I was there. But that brief appearance was enough to crack a door open. I learned later that some eight-millimeter film of my performance made its way, thanks to Bettye and Nadine, to the talent evaluators who would select our Olympic team. Shortly afterward, a letter came in the mail.
It was embossed with the initials “USA” on the top.
Adapted from the book “Sum It Up,” copyright © 2013, by Pat Head Summitt. Written with Sally Jenkins. To be published by Crown Archetype, a division of Random House, Inc., on March 5. Reprinted with permission.