By: Adam Minichino
This circle wasn't going to be broken.
The destination was familiar to Pat Summitt and her University of Tennessee women's basketball program. Since her first season as head coach at Tennessee in 1974-75, Summitt and the Lady Volunteers had finished second or third in the AIAW Championships four times and three times in the NCAA tournament.
The 1987 Final Four was going to be different.
Tennessee had gone over the scouting report for Louisiana Tech. The Lady Volunteers knew their plays. They knew the Lady Techsters' plays, too. Their goal was to beat the Louisiana Tech players to their spots and not to give them room to breathe.
Hours before the 1987 national title game in the Frank Erwin Special Events Center, the Lady Volunteers closed their eyes and visualized history being made.
"We were so prepared and so relaxed," said Bridgette Gordon, a sophomore on the team. "We were on a mission. I don't know if any team could have stopped us at that point."
On March 29, 1987, Gordon, Tonya Edwards, and Sheila Frost each had 13 points to lead Tennessee to a 67-44 victory against Louisiana Tech on the campus of the University of Texas.
Dubbed the "corn-fed chicks" by Long Beach State's Cindy Brown earlier in the week, Gordon, Frost, and the rest of the Lady Volunteers earned a place in history as the first team Tennessee women's basketball team to win a national title. The distinction win as especially sweet for Summitt, who had been so close so many times that even she admitted to feeling like a "monkey" was off her back.
The championship helped one of the greatest coaches and programs in the history of women’s college basketball blossom. Summitt and the Lady Volunteers went on to win seven more national championships, the most of any Division I program. Summitt also has won 31 Southeastern Conference regular-season and tournament championships combined en route to becoming the NCAA's all-time winningest coach (men's or women's) with 1,088 victories through January 2012.
But through all of the victories, awards, and accomplishments, the 1987 team will always hold a special place in history because it was the first to win a title. That feeling hasn't worn off 25 years after the "corn-fed chicks" from Knoxville, Tenn., went from "underdogs to big dogs."
"We were not the ones that we supposed to win it all," said Shelley Sexton Collier, who was a senior guard on the team. "You could tell from the looks in everybody's eyes that we were on a mission and we didn't care who was in our way. We were going to win it. We listened to everything the coaches told us, and everyone bought in and we believed."
Building a champion
Summitt didn't need coaching experience to understand any coach has to earn the respect of their players to be successful, let alone become a champion.
As a standout basketball and volleyball player at the University of Tennessee-Martin, Summitt's competitive spirit won her the respect of her peers. She rebounded, she defended, she hustled. She did all of the things coaches loved, and she didn't like to lose.
That mind-set became the foundation of her program at the University of Tennessee.
"I knew if they were going to respect me it was going to have to be through hard work, communication, discipline, and mutual respect," Summitt said. "Over the years, I found myself repeating the same principles over and over again. Before long, I had my Definite Dozen list. To stay here and play here (at Tennessee) out players had to follow the Definite Dozen."
1. Respect Yourself and others
2. Take Full Responsibility
3. Develop and Demonstrate Loyalty
4. Learn to be a Great Communicator
5. Discipline Yourself So No One Else Has To
6. Make Hard Work Your Passion
7. Don't Just Work Hard, Work Smart
8. Put the Team Before Yourself
9. Make Winning an Attitude
10. Be a Competitor
11. Change is a Must
12. Handle Success Like You Handle Failure
After winning 16 games in each of her first two seasons, Summitt guided the Lady Volunteers to the 1977 AIAW Championships. Tennessee beat Michigan State and Kansas State before losing to Delta State in the semifinals. Summitt said a victory against an experienced program like Immaculata in the consolation game capped an experience she thought was crucial because it gave her program a taste of what it was like to compete for titles, and it wanted more.
With each year, though, the frustration of falling short of that ultimate prize grew. There was a third-place finish in the 1979 AIAW Championships followed by back-to-back second-place finishes before the 1982 squad took second in the inaugural NCAA tournament.
True to her Definite Dozen, Summitt handled the failures like a champion, and each time she pushed herself to do better. She admitted the Lady Volunteers had their chances to win titles prior to 1987, but she said it "just wasn't our time yet."
A group of players that would come to earn one of the best nicknames in women's basketball history set out to change that.
Taking the next step
Growing up in Lake City, Tenn., Sexton Collier watched Summitt and the Lady Volunteers and marveled at the great players who wore the orange and white. She also remembered how those players came so close to winning championships and never realized their dreams.
Sexton Collier vowed her senior season was going to be different.
"We wanted it for Pat and the players who had been there before," Sexton Collier said. "It was much bigger than us. We were not the most talented team in the country, but we were the best team because everyone bought into their role and trusted the coaches."
Led by seniors Sexton Collier and Cheryl Littlejohn, juniors Frost and Gordon, and Edwards, a freshman guard, Tennessee won its first eight games before losing to the University of Texas, the defending national champion, 88-74 on Dec. 29, 1986. A year earlier, Jody Conradt's program went 34-0 to become the first team in NCAA history to complete a perfect season.
Tennessee lost to Auburn, Mississippi, and Vanderbilt in the SEC before suffering a non-conference loss to Louisiana Tech 72-60 on Feb. 9, 1987, in Ruston, La.
Tennessee closed the regular season with five more victories and finished third in the SEC tournament after a 102-96 loss to Auburn, which went on to win the league title and earn one of four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. Tennessee was the No. 2 seed, and both teams were placed in the same bracket and put on a collision course to meet again March 21, 1987, in the regional final in Knoxville, Tenn.
Sexton Collier said the Lady Volunteers still considered themselves the underdog right up until that game, which was the last one played in the Stokely Athletics Center.
Summitt said the 1987 exceeded expectations thanks to a "gritty toughness" and "great" leadership from Sexton Collier.
"We had mentally, physically, and emotionally tough players on the front lines and in the post in Bridgette Gordon, Sheila Frost, Karla Horton, Kathy Spinks, and Lisa Webb," Summitt said. "Along with Shelley, we had a great backcourt with Dawn Marsh, Tonya Edwards, and Melissa McCray.
"We had role players, walk-ons, and All-Americans working side by side as great teammates to be the best they could become. Each win gave them even more confidence, and as the underdogs we weren't expected to do much. In the end, they went from underdogs to big dogs."
A 77-61 victory against Auburn pushed Tennessee back to the Final Four and set up a date against high-scoring Long Beach State.
Closing the deal
Mel Greenberg has heard all of the best lines uttered in women's basketball.
Greenberg covered college and professional basketball for more than 40 years and helped to pioneer the original Top 25 women's national poll. When he heard Long Beach State's Brown talk about Tennessee's size, strength, and physicality in the post and refer to the Lady Volunteers as "corn-fed chicks," he knew it was one for the ages. He didn't know Tennessee would take those words as motivation and play one of their best games of the season.
Tennessee needed one of its best efforts because Long Beach State (33-2) was having a program-best season in its first trip to the Final Four. The 49ers were leading the nation in scoring (95.8 points per game), had scored 100 or more points 15 times, and had set a Division I record for points in a game in a 149-69 victory against San Jose State. Their fireworks came in the final season before the 3-point shot was instituted.
Brown, a 6-foot-2 senior forward, led Long Beach State with 28.8 ppg. Greenberg said Texas, which was scheduled to play Louisiana Tech in the other semifinal, was a favorite and that Long Beach State was a slight favorite.
Tennessee erased those plans with a 74-64 victory. The Lady Volunteers held the 49ers to a season-low scoring output and advanced to face Louisiana Tech, which upset Texas 79-75.
"Louisiana Tech played a tremendous game, and when Louisiana Tech won it you kinda knew Tennessee was in great shape," said Greenberg, who was elected to the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007. "There were so many times Tennessee showed up as the favorite and didn't win it. That year they were the ones with no pressure."
Greenberg believes Brown intended for her "corn-fed chicks" line to be taken in a light, complimentary fashion.
But longtime Tennessee assistant coach Holly Warlick, who is now head coach, said the comment fueled the Lady Volunteers.
"They were proud of it," said Warlick, a former player at Tennessee. "That meant they valued hard work and that they were showing how hard they worked and how physical this game could be. That is how we wanted it to be played and how they saw it needed to be played."
Gordon said it Brown's remark was funny and that she and her teammates took it as a compliment. But she disagreed it was a big motivator because she felt the team still wasn't getting the respect it deserved one year after it had defeated Georgia and LSU to get to the Final Four.
"Anything that added fuel to the fire, the more the merrier," said Gordon, who is now an assistant women's basketball coach at Wichita State.
If Tennessee was riding a wave of momentum after beating Long Beach State and learning Louisiana Tech upset Texas, Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore was trying to do everything he could to re-energize his team.
Unfortunately, he didn't have nearly enough time. After one of his team's best victories of the season, Barmore credited Tennessee for handling his team in an exceptional effort.
"Yes, (the Texas) game did take a lot out of us, but take nothing away from what Tennessee did," Barmore said. "They beat us really good. Pat was wonderful that night."
True to Tennessee's "corn-fed" nature, it outrebounded Louisiana Tech 47-36 to avenge the regular-season loss and make history. Barmore knew it would be just a "matter of time" before Summitt and Tennessee won their first national title. He credits Summitt for instilling a mind-set that helped the Lady Volunteers win battles in the paint and overpower opponents with their defense.
"That was Pat's trademark, and it still is," said Barmore, about Brown's comment and how it accurately epitomized Tennessee's style of play and mind-set. "She was so physical and so tough on the boards. If you take away offensive boards the University of Tennessee would have half as many championships. I remember that statement, and it was pretty right. They would put a bruising on you if you stood around. As good a game as we played against Texas the game before we were really never in that game."
Closing the circle
Years later, Barmore respects what Summitt has accomplished.
The longtime Louisiana Tech coach won 576 games and led the Lady Techsters to the 1988 national title. He said if Louisiana Tech couldn't win the 1987 title he was happy Summitt could win it because she was always so gracious in defeat.
Texas coach Jody Conradt agrees. Conradt said the championship was a fitting reward for all of the hard work Summitt had done to build Tennessee into a national power.
"Pat was a coach who was then and is now motivated to be successful," said Conradt, who won 900 games in 38 seasons as a coach, including 31 at Texas. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for Pat. The fact that she is a driving force in our sport and the fact that she is anybody's definition of competitive, driven, intense, those qualities come through in everything she does."
Today, that circle is stronger than ever. On Aug. 22, 2011, Summitt revealed doctors at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed her with early onset dementia, "Alzheimer's Type." She continues to serve as an inspiration to players, coaches, and fans across the nation, and as an icon who helped set the standard and raise the profile for women's basketball.
"Pat and what she has done speaks for itself," Gordon said. "She is a great motivator and a great leader. She has made our program a family. ... It is nice to say you were part of the first group to win it for all of those before you and, hopefully, you helped draw more attention and raise the bar more. I am thankful for God to play for someone like Pat and to be involved in the Tennessee program."
Said Sexton Collier, "Anyone who has been a part of a first can't explain the feeling and what it means. It will be something we're always associated with and affiliated with the University of Tennessee and their first national championship. It is a great feeling even 25 years later that people are still thinking about the impact we had not only on the university, but also on the game of women's basketball."