By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Dawn Marsh knows Tennessee head coach emeritus Pat Summitt a little better than most of her colleagues.
Marsh, just like her fellow Southeastern Conference women’s basketball referees, has been on the receiving end of Summitt’s famous stare more times than she can count, but for Marsh, that ire has come from a different perspective.
Marsh, prior to her career as a women’s basketball official – including the last three seasons in the SEC, played for Summitt from 1984-88 and was a member of the first of Tennessee’s eight NCAA Championship teams in 1987. Of Summitt, Marsh joked that she played for the legendary head coach in stricter days.
“I think it’s a lot scarier being a player than being an official,” she said with a laugh. “You know what you’re getting. When I went to Tennessee in the ‘80s, she was a lot sterner and harder, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Marsh credits much of her success as a basketball official to the lessons she learned while playing for Summitt.
“I think she made me a better official just playing for her because what she teaches her players is that you’re not a player, you’re a coach on the floor,” Marsh said. “To have the knowledge of the game that I learned from her, I felt that allowed me to be a step ahead of other people when I started because I knew the game so well. I felt like I knew what was about to happen, or what offense or defense teams were running. I was ready before the play was even executed.”
It is because of her relationship with Summitt that Marsh decided to rally her colleagues to contribute to the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund, designed to bring awareness and provide funding for Alzheimer’s research.
“I didn’t know a lot about the foundation, but I knew about the bracelet that they were selling,” Marsh said. “For our NCAA Rules Clinic in Atlanta this year, I asked the foundation to send me 300 bracelets to sell at that meeting because I figured there would be a lot of people who would want to have them. Instead of just paying the $3 for the bracelet, a lot of them gave $5 or $10 or $20. That’s kind of how it got started. There were a lot of officials at that meeting, so it allowed me to get the information out and sell 300 bracelets at one time.”
For the second consecutive year, the SEC is sponsoring “We Back Pat” week, a week-long initiative focused on bringing awareness and recognition to the Pat Summitt Foundation, Jan. 13-20. With that, Marsh saw another opportunity for SEC officials to make a difference.
She sent an e-mail to her colleagues in late December asking them to come together and donate whatever money they could spare to aid the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund. Those donations from the SEC Women’s Basketball Officials will be presented to the foundation at Tennessee’s Jan. 20 game vs. Auburn. Additionally, all SEC referees will be wearing “We Back Pat” lapel pins and wristbands during that week of games.
“The referees all wanted to do something and Dawn was a natural person to head this up since she played at Tennessee and because of her connection with Pat Summitt,” said Sally Bell, SEC Coordinator of Women’s Basketball Officials. “Pat has done so much for women’s basketball, especially the SEC referees. Her legacy and history is amazing. She has always been a supporter.”
Marsh has been pleased with the response she has received from the initiative, but she is certainly not surprised at the generosity of her colleagues.
“They’re digging in their pockets to put money in the hat,” Marsh said. “With this organization, these people are professionals who care about women’s basketball. I don’t have to ask twice. They are willing to donate their hard-earned money to a cause that we all hope is going to make a difference – maybe it’s tomorrow, maybe in a year or maybe 10 years down the road.”
Bell, who served 33 years as a women’s basketball official prior to her retirement, echoed Marsh’s sentiments, saying she has always been struck by the closeness of the officiating community and its willingness to give back to the game.
“It’s a special fraternity; it’s pretty tight knit,” Bell said. “They do reach out to others and coaches are part of it. They are really united and everyone wants to support this and be a part of it; they’re such a giving group. I don’t think there’s anyone that doesn’t understand and appreciate the contribution Pat has made to all of women’s basketball that ultimately enhanced every one of their careers.”
Marsh understands the bigger picture, but she also knows how much of an impact her former college coach made on her own life.
“The inspiration from this came from being an alumna and playing for her,” Marsh said. “She means a lot to me as a person. She was a coach and friend and, really, she was like our mother. It is just very obvious that she has made a big difference in women’s basketball – for players, coaches, fans and officials.”
For those not involved in the inner-workings of women’s basketball, the idea that the SEC officials are joining together to aid Summitt might seem to be a bit surprising. After all, some of the most vivid images of Summitt involve her animation towards game referees.
According to Bell, when it came to Summitt’s relationship with the officials, there was more than met the untrained eye.
“She was tough as nails, but she was fair,” Bell said. “As a referee, you knew you were going to get a fair shake. Everybody knew it and everybody had the same opportunity with her. You knew whenever she said something that it was something for you to listen to.”
For the first time in 38 years, Summitt is no longer leading the Lady Vols, but her contributions to the game and her determination to help others, especially through the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund, continues to make a major difference in the lives of many.
“It’s a little surreal in that I’ve never known Tennessee without Pat on the bench,” Bell said. “We just want to make a contribution from the referees and let people know we are behind this. We want to try to give back.”
Bell will be in Knoxville on Sunday to present the contributions of the SEC officials to the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund. It will mark yet another group rallying behind Summitt, showing its support for a larger-than-life figure who changed the face of the profession.
“I don’t know what this check is going to be like, but everybody has been sending checks in,” Marsh said. “We had just a short period of time to do this. These officials are working every day, are on a plane or in a car, but they have definitely taken time out of their busy schedules to put a stamp on an envelope. Hopefully we will get a cure soon.”