Yesterday's Times ran an article about the "coaching tree" of Pat Summitt--about the impressively high number of her former players who are helping to achieve what, really, was Summitt's aim all along: to raise the level of the women's game. That number, believe me, would be much higher if it weren't for the WNBA or european professional leagues. It's a terrific article, and the print version of the Times features an uncanny shot of one of Pat's many point guards, Kellie Jolly Harper, squatting and squinting, Summitt style, on the sidelines.
Reading this piece made me spiral back a couple of decades to my explicit decision not to go into coaching. The 1989-90 season was a particularly challenging one for Pat. We had some behavioral issues, the details of which escape me now, something to do with missed curfews or spending nights with boyfriends. We had some rifts on the team. One player was perceived as the "coach's pet," which can be devastating to team chemistry. My best friend Regina's unlucky eye twitch happened more times than ever that season (we lost every game before which her eye twitched). We played some pretty raggedy basketball that year, and we didn't make it to the Final Four, which as it happens, was being held on our home court (for more on that particular devastation, go here). Pat made us sit in the stands and watch every second of the 1990 final four. We watched as the Stanford point guard from Oak Ridge who had really wanted to play at Tennessee won her team a championship. The next week, Pat called us in one by one.
Regina and I waited for our meetings with trepidation--my stomach turns just writing about it. After those meetings our team numbers dwindled to 9 scholarship players; nearly a third of the team transferred or rotated elsewhere by mutual agreement. Apart from the fear heading in to the meeting, and the fact that I, like Regina, came out of mine okay (we both were team players with easy-going temperaments), I remember nothing.
At that point I wasn't planning on a coaching career--the pressure cooker that was my high school coach's job already made that option less than appealing--but around 1990 I decided there's no way I wanted to coach basketball for a living because I didn't want my livelihood to depend on the motivational levels or the mercurial temperaments of 18-to 22-year olds. Regina and I talked about this a lot, and we agreed that much as we loved basketball, it was not our future.
It's not that I don't like 18- to 22-year olds, I do. I ended up deciding to become a college professor after all. But there is a big difference in having one's job hinge on the win-loss record posted by a small handful of young adult women and having student evaluations of your performance as a teacher figure ever-so-slightly into promotions and raises. 1990 showed me that no matter how much talent you have recruited, or how hard you work to prepare your team, things still might not turn out well: players bicker, sulk, and rebel much as they hesitate, slough, and miss. Students may do these things too (especially sulk and slough), but one need only wait out the semester, and there's a fresh batch of faces the next term. Personality management, it seemed to me, had to be one of the most frustrating parts of coaching. Pat--and all those former players who are now coaches--have far more patience than I would, and I admire them for it.
1990 was also, as it happens, the year I changed my major to English. That summer, I fulfilled my major's Shakespeare requirement, and one of my teammates taunted me by swiping my Riverside and coloring in Shakespeare's eyes with red pen.