Maria M. Cornelius is the author of “The Final Season”, a book dedicated to the last coaching season of one of the most legendary, heroic and inspirational coaches sport has ever seen…Pat Summitt.
Pat Summitt began her coaching career in 1974 aged 22 as the Head Coach of the Lady Vols Women’s Basketball Team (University of Tennessee), and established the team as one of the best women’s athletics programs in the Country. Pat won an incredible 1,098 games and eight national championships with the Lady Vols, as well as an Olympic Gold Medal as Head Coach of the USA Women’s National team in 1984 and was the first female coach to ever grace the front covers of Sports Illustrated Magazine.
In 2011, Pat was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and bravely went ahead to complete her final season (2011-2012) as the Head Coach of the Lady Vols. Devastatingly, the disease took hold of Pat very quickly, and she sadly passed away on June 28th 2016 aged only 64.
In 2016, Maria who has written about the Lady Vols Basketball program since 1998 for local, regional and national media, published her book telling the story of Pat’s final coaching season through the eyes of those who knew her best, from the players to support staff to Pat’s closest friends and advisors. Beginning with the diagnosis that shook the Tennessee community in the summer of 2011 continuing through to the final game of 2012.
Pat Summitt has been a huge inspiration to the FCN founder and after reading the book “The Final Season”, she wanted to reach out to Maria and ask her about her own experience of Pat’s final season and how she feels about having written about such an emotional story about one of the greatest coaches in the history of sport…
I have so many questions about your journey in writing the book and following Pat on her last season. I don’t know where to begin. Perhaps the best place would be to start with Pat. What did Pat Summitt mean to you?
She meant as much to me as anyone I have ever crossed paths with in my (almost) 55 years on Earth. The book opens in the prologue with an explanation of how I crossed paths with Pat – and made her angry – and that was perfect in hindsight because I ignored the ire and plowed ahead with the interview.
(An online version of that story, thanks to the internet, is available here: http://scout.com/college/tennessee/Article/Cover-to-cover-104896389. This ran in the former Rocky Top News magazine and was reprinted on the day before Pat Summitt’s official press conference to announce her retirement.)
I got to know Pat primarily as a member of the media, and I would later say, if a sportswriter could not cover the Lady Vols, he or she needed to find a new profession. She opened practices to the public at home. When the team was on the road, she made sure the traveling beat writers knew where and when practice would be held.
Usually, this was the same venue where the game would be played the next day or the campus practice facility, but sometimes on longer trips, it was a high school gym. She made sure any writers on the road knew where to cover practice. She gave writers her home phone and when cellphones debuted, she made sure we had that, too. And she answered our calls (though we knew if it was after 10 p.m., our call had better be important.)
She would occasionally invite the regulars into a film session before a game. I learned more about basketball in a 15- to 30-minute film session with Pat and her assistants than I did over years of playing (in high school and recreationally). Practice also was her classroom so I was able to watch her teach the game. That was an invaluable basketball education. Pat knew that writers who were better-informed wrote better stories – not ones that favored her team but that allowed us to write more in-depth and with better understanding of what transpired in games.
Pat never asked for positive coverage; she just wanted fair and informed stories. There was a level of trust there, too. She knew that by opening practice, we would not report specific strategies and scouting reports before a game – that would be the end of open practices – and she also knew that we would gain a better understanding of what she was trying to teach. The end result was better coverage and promotion of the game.
How did the opportunity to write this book arise?
Oddly enough, it didn’t cross my mind during the season. I think all of us in the media were so focused on day-to-day coverage that we weren’t really thinking ahead. Everything was so different that season to say the least. We still covered the team and games, but we also covered Pat and the reaction to “We Back Pat.” As with other seasons, I had all the box scores, interviews (video and taped), photos, etc., so I had a full record of it, thank goodness.
After the 2011-12 season ended, the media was basically on watch mode because Pat Summitt’s retirement seemed imminent. That was covered extensively, as was the hiring of Holly Warlick, recruiting stories, et al. And then NASCAR driver Trevor Bayne drove a “We Back Pat” car at a race in Bristol, Tennessee, at Bristol Motor Speedway over the summer. The pre-event of the announcement also was covered, and Pat attended that event and the race, so that generated even more coverage. Then, in September, it’s time to get ready to cover a new season in 2012-13 and one that now had special meaning because it would be Warlick’s first one as a head coach.
On Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Pat Summitt always said, ‘Don’t throw me a pity party. You’ll be the only one there.’ So, I got on a plane to Texas (the Lady Vols were playing Texas and Baylor on the road in mid-December) the next day on Dec. 15 and kept covering the team, arriving for Tennessee’s practice in Austin that afternoon. On Feb.15, 2013, I had a double mastectomy and was released from the hospital on Feb. 16. Author Sally Jenkins, who was about to have “Sum it Up,” the definitive book on Pat Summitt, released in March 2013, was in town to see Pat and had brought some advance copies of her book. Sally told me to stop by Pat’s house – it was on my way home from the hospital – and pick up a copy to review for InsideTennessee.com.
I remember holding onto the rail to slowly walk down to the sidewalk leading to Pat’s front door in Alcoa, Tennessee – which is a few miles south of Knoxville – where she lived on the Tennessee River. Sally greeted me at the door and I went to the kitchen to get the book and say hello to Pat, who was making food. I was pretty pale and tired and still had drainage tubes coming out of holes in my chest so I didn’t stay long – enough time to hug them both and thank Sally for the book.
By doctor’s orders, I could not cover the Lady Vols’ game that next day, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013 – oddly enough it was the pink game for breast cancer awareness – but I did watch it on television and tweeted about it. I also had Sally’s book to read while I was recuperating. When I reviewed it for the website – a tremendous book; I recommend it to everyone – I noted that Sally had to zip through the final season to meet deadline as the book was published less than a year after the 2011-12 season ended. I mentioned that the final season may be worth a book in itself.
Sally contacted me and said: “You’re right. I wasn’t there. You were. You write it.” So, I did. That started the process of proposal and finding a publisher, which ended up being The University of Tennessee Press. A big assist and thank you to Sally.
How proud do you feel that you have been able to write this book and share with the World Pat’s last seasoned all that she and those close with her went through in the last few years?
I wanted a permanent record of that season. That is why there is so much game detail in it – that section was for diehard Lady Vol fans who will want to relive those moments. I also wanted those who weren’t necessarily basketball fans to gain insight into that season, so that is where I focused on personal stories from the players, coaches and staff who were there and those who knew Pat best. While I have been writing all of my life – I wrote short (probably wretched) stories when I was in elementary school – and have been published in newspapers, magazines and online, seeing that book cover was different. It was a sense of accomplishment and also hoping I had honored Pat’s legacy. She deserved no less than my very best.
What do you hope readers of the book will take away from reading it?
I hope they come away with a greater appreciation for what the 2011-12 team and coaches endured that season. To see Pat struggling some days was soul-crushing for Warlick, assistant coaches Mickie DeMoss and Dean Lockwood and longtime staff members like Jenny Moshak and Heather Mason. But, yet, they had to keep putting one foot in front of the other as Pat said: “Left foot. Right foot. Breathe.”
I also hope that Pat’s courage comes through to readers. And her willingness to summon all she could for those players. I hope they understand how soul-crushing it was for Pat to have to stop coaching. I hope the humor comes through, too. Pat’s ability to laugh at herself brought much-needed levity throughout the season. And I hope readers also see the profound impact she had on and off the court and that they keep her memory and legacy alive in perpetuity.
I love the story about Pat’s last season in which even the away fans had signs up celebrating Pat and cheered her when she walked in the gym, even queuing for autographs after the game no matter the result … this must have been so powerful for all involved in the Lady Vol’s program. Did you experience this first hand?
Yes, I made it a point to focus on her during that final season because we knew it was possible that it would be her last. I would return to the court area after press conferences or walk outside on road games to the bus area. I always stayed in the background, but I always watched.
I was on the court early before the game to take photographs, read the fans’ sign and then hear the cheers and see them come to their feet when Pat walked onto the floor. It was deafening at times, a literal roar from the crowd. Photographers followed her to the bench. That is also when I noticed how much those players were trying to absorb that season. It was minutes from tipoff and while Pat was nearly always well-received on the road by opposing fans, this was different, and the magnitude of the moment affected everyone who witnessed it.
When the team left the floor in Des Moines, Iowa, I followed Pat, her staff and players off the floor. I stayed back, of course – that time is for the team – but it was a long hallway to the locker room at Wells Fargo Arena. I remember so vividly stopping and just standing there and watching Pat walk with her team. All I could see were their backs. I knew then that I was probably watching her for the last time as head coach of the Lady Vols. And I wanted to soak in every second. I could hear the players crying. The tears started before they got to the locker room. I stayed in reporter mode, but it was hard not to react to such stark sadness. I knew I was watching the end of an era – and one that had ended in such cruel fashion with this disease. In some moments, the magnitude of the moment is fully realized while it is happening. That moment for me was in Des Moines, Iowa, in the expansive hallway of a downtown arena watching an iconic coach accompany her team to the locker room for the last time.
Can you share with us one of your favourite memories of speaking with / interacting with Pat?
The fact that I made her mad with that first phone call in 1998 is always a good memory when I need to smile. What I miss is her directness with any of our questions, especially when it came to how her team was playing at any given time, and her ability to say no comment with a wry grin when she didn’t want to be pulled into some controversy by a media question (usually generated somewhere out of Connecticut). Pat had a wicked sense of humor that was apparent in some of her television interviews and the “This is SportsCenter” commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OaGYOieGo5I. (This was just five years before the diagnosis. What a devastating disease.)
I think one story that captures Pat well is about one day when I was using a side room in Pratt Pavilion to interview a former Lady Vol for a story. Practice was starting soon, and I ducked into the room off the court because I needed a relatively quiet place to record an interview. Pat walked in – she needed the room for a quick meeting – and saw me on the phone. I explained I was talking to a player and would vacate the room, and she asked for the phone so she could chat with the player for a minute, handed the phone back to me and told me to keep the room. That is Pat in a nutshell. She did all that she could to accommodate the media, and she was upset when practice attendance was limited in that final season. She wanted the regular beat writers there, but was overruled by the administration. Pat was very loyal. It may be her best attribute, but there are others, of course, including resiliency, laser focus and that wonderful sense of humor.
What lasting memories, inspiration or thoughts has Pat left with you?
One of Pat’s favorite sayings – and she had many – was: ‘Keep on keepin’ on.’ She said that even after the devastating diagnosis. She left me with the realization of just how resilient she was. It would have been understandable if she retreated after announcing that she had early onset dementia. But she forms a foundation to raise research funds (and the foundation would go on to open The Pat Summitt Clinic in Knoxville for treatment of patients), keeps coaching, handles media interviews after practice and is willing to put a very public face on Alzheimer’s disease. She always told her staff and players to do the right thing, and she set the example at the top of the program. When that philosophy was fully tested on a personal level, she stuck to her principles. She lived her life the same way she demanded it from others – be responsible, be accountable, be committed.
I miss her. We all do.