GWEN IFILL: And finally tonight, why the Tennessee Lady Vols keep winning it all. One of the key answers to that question is their coach, Pat Summitt. Last night, she extended her dynasty by capturing her eighth national championship as the head coach of Tennessee’s women’s basketball team.
For a little insight into that dominance, we turn to Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist for the Washington Post. She’s co-authored two books with the Tennessee coach, including “Reach for the Summit.” She was at the game last night and she joins us now.
SALLY JENKINS, Washington Post: Hi.
GWEN IFILL: So we’re talking about 982 career games won, eight-time champion. What is it with Pat Summitt?
SALLY JENKINS: Well, she has an amazing ability to sort of impose her will on the basketball court. Her teams tend to be direct reflections of her very fierce personality. She had a team last night that was absolutely lion-hearted all night long and she came away with her eight championship.
GWEN IFILL: You know, people tend to look at women’s basketball and put it in a different class than men’s basketball. The person whose record it looks like she’s about to break, if she were to win a couple more of these, is John Wooden from UCLA, who, of course, has the record for the most NCAA championships won. Do you think she can do it?
SALLY JENKINS: Well, I do, because she’s a young woman. She’s only 56 years old and she shows absolutely no sign of losing interest in the game. I’ve always said that the thing that would probably force her to retire is the kids.
If the kids change and they’re not as interested in her brand of basketball, that might, you know, run her off the court someday, but they show no sign of doing that.
She’s very engaged with the modern player. I think that’s what’s so interesting about her last two championships. She’s repeated back-to-back championships in the last two years at a time when a lot of people may have said that the game had passed her by. I think she’s proven that actually she’s back on the cutting edge.
GWEN IFILL: One of those kids that you were referring to, Candace Parker, who played last night, 24 hours later was drafted for the WNBA and became, I guess, the first woman who ever left college in order to do that. Is that the trend of the future for women’s basketball?
SALLY JENKINS: Well, Candace Parker actually has gotten her degree. She’s graduating from Tennessee. She exhausted — she’s an academic senior. She took a year out because of a knee injury. But Candace Parker was one of just five members of that team who were drafted today in the WNBA.
The explosion of talent in women’s basketball is really a remarkable acceleration of ability. Candace Parker dunks the ball all the time, something that we really didn’t see was going to happen in the women’s game four or five years ago.
So I think that the kids at Tennessee that people watched last night are probably not your mom and dad’s brand of basketball. Anybody who thinks that women’s basketball is an inferior game is probably living in the past.
Even John Wooden has said that he actually prefers the women’s game these days, because he thinks it’s the more pure form of basketball.
GWEN IFILL: Are dynasties like we see at Tennessee, are they good for the sport? We saw that ratings were down, fewer people were watching. The men’s championship, four number-one seeds; the women’s championship, Connecticut, Stanford, Tennessee, the same teams.
SALLY JENKINS: Well, again, I actually thought it was one of the best tournaments that the women had had. You had some really close finishes in the women’s game.
I think it depends on whether you’re from the state of Tennessee or the state of Connecticut. Connecticut is a hugely popular program, also, with five national championships. They got knocked out in the semi-finals by Stanford, a West Coast team that maybe didn’t command the huge ratings of a Tennessee or a Connecticut. So that may have affected some of the ratings in the Final Four.
GWEN IFILL: So all of Pat Summitt’s starters are leaving now. She’s going to have to start from scratch next season. Can she do that? Does she do that?
SALLY JENKINS: Oh, she loves it. I mean, the thing about her is, you know, Pat is really a teacher. I mean, her real talent is for teaching. If she didn’t have basketball, she’d be teaching high school back probably in Clarksville, Tenn., or something.
She’s a born educator. And she’s going to have, I think, six freshmen in the fall, and she’s actually really looking forward to it, believe it or not.
GWEN IFILL: The students say, her players say that she is more than a coach. What do they mean by that? Is she a big sister? Is she a mom? What is she?
SALLY JENKINS: Well, I think they do view her as a second mother. I think Pat has got a very large personality and a big voice. You can see her on the sidelines stalking up and down and waving and yelling at the kids, but the affection is equal to the shouting.
Her players are quite devoted to her, and it’s mutual. And so I think that’s what they mean by that. Candace Parker said last night, when you go to Tennessee, you play for Pat Summitt. And she didn’t just mean that you play for her as a coach; I think she meant that you play for her from your heart. I think the kids truly adore her.
GWEN IFILL: And perhaps she’ll start from scratch with those six freshmen and do it all over again next year. Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, thanks so much.
SALLY JENKINS: Thank you.