In Memoriam: Pat Summitt

It’s a weird day on Rocky Top.  Pat Summitt, the iconic coach of the University of Tennessee’s Lady Vols Basketball Team, passed this morning after a battle with early-onset dementia, also known as Alzheimer’s Disease.  An icon is gone from the world of college sports, and someone who transcended sports in general to become bigger than the sport itself.  From all of us, Pat, thank you for your accomplishments.

Pat Summitt, arguably the winningest coach in college basketball history, managed to change what was considered a “rec” or “intramural” sport in women’s basketball at UT into a powerhouse winning eight national championships.  If you’re not from Knoxville, you’ll have a hard time understanding what it was like trying to find a parking spot near the Thompson-Boling Arena during nights the Lady Vols played during Summitt’s reign as head coach.  People flocked to see her teams.  Coaches flocked to see her secrets in not just winning ball games, but motivating students.  All day on local radio and TV stories of Pat Summitt’s legacy have been floating around.  Funny thing is that if you looked at it from her perspective, none of what’s being shared would be “legendary.”  It was just the right thing to do.

One story I’ll not forget soon involved a fundraiser for breast cancer held at Thompson-Boling called “Think Pink, Bleed Orange.”  Every spectator at the game that night was to receive a T-Shirt reading that slogan.  Unfortunately, due to the Athletics Director’s fuckup, Summitt was told only enough shirts would be available for those sitting in bowl seats to court side.

“You mean only the rich people will get those shirts?” Summit asked.

“Yes ma’am.” replied the Athletics Director.

“That ain’t right.”  Summitt then proceeded to find out how much money was necessary to fund everyone in the building getting a T-Shirt that evening and wrote a check for the remaining amount, out of her own pocket.  She never asked for a reimbursement.

More impressive than her basketball wins is her success rate for graduating athletes.  Under Summitt’s tenure, 100% of all Lady Vols players graduated from the University of Tennessee.  An alleged tradition went something like this: Coach Summitt didn’t care how late her students were out past a game; if you had class the next day you were in one of the first three rows, front and center, and ready to go when the professor came in the room.  Miss class, you didn’t play.  Simple as that.

The level of respect Pat Summitt showed everyone was astounding too.  So much so, that when news broke Summitt was in the last hours of her life, it broke in the media only yesterday.  The media loved Coach Summitt so much for the way she treated them (including home cooking and homemade ice cream) and the respect she’d shown people all over Tennessee they placed a voluntary “gag order” on reporting her condition until it couldn’t be held back anymore.

Local historian and comedian Shane Rhyne summed up Pat Summitt’s legacy better than I could on Facebook.  I’m quoting him here, because his stats are better than anything I could muster.

A few things worth noting about Pat Summit:
1. She had a 100% graduation rate. 100.
2. She became the winningest coach of all time not by playing cupcake schedules, but by challenging herself & her team. Almost 50% of her career games were coached against ranked opponents.
3. She did not expect perfection, but she did expect effort.
4. She believed the key indicator to a team’s future success was not how they played together on the court, but how they treated each other off of it.
5. She believed every player’s contribution had value to the team’s success. She rewarded everyone, including scheduling away games in or near a senior’s hometown, so friends and family could see her play for the famous Lady Vols, even if it meant scheduling a game against the #1 ranked team in the nation on their home court.

Today and in the future, schools and coaches will be investigated, studied, and questioned about academic standards, legal issues, and assorted scandals. There will be administrators, athletic directors, coaches, and boosters who will try to tell you that sometimes you have to cut corners or relax your standards if you want to field a winning team.

You owe it to her legacy to point to Pat Summit and tell them, “She didn’t.” (my emphasis)

Truer words will never be spoken now or in the future about a college sports icon.  Pat, from all of us on Rocky Top to you and yours, thank you for taking that “rec sport” and turning it into a national phenomenon.  

And we all owe Pat’s legacy that much.  Never cut corners.  Ever.

Brief Notes on Three Letters

Tonight I received three letters from a colleague of mine, one incredibly versed in the practice of law and with a dearth of experience in the profession.  He’s a bit of a firebrand, and one who tends to attract a good deal of controversy when he speaks up on an issue.  This time, it’s concerning indigent defense in Tennessee, a point near and dear to my heart.  That said, there’s a few things I want cleared up concerning these letters sent to a state Senator, one State Representative, and to Tennessee’s Indigent Defense Task Force.

  1. To Senator Overbey: I’d love to meet with you sometime and talk about what life is like learning to practice law absent any mentor or guidance.  I doubt you’ll ever take the time to learn what life is like from a trench lawyer’s point of view that came into the profession right when the law school bubble burst and jobs got scarce.  I’d love to get to know you, but I doubt very seriously you’ll take the time to have that conversation.

    That said, if you’re really that interested in talking, I definitely think someone on your staff needs to be ready to explain the comments my pal discussed when you poo-poohed the idea of raising indigent defense rates because it was an issue of “supply and demand,” and as long as there were enough hungry lawyers willing to take cases at a $40/hour rate then you wouldn’t be keen on raising rates of compensation for indigent defense attorneys.  I’ve seen Knoxville’s budgets for the last couple of years.  I’ve seen the State’s budgets for the last couple of years.  When you devote enough time to moving funds from a “diversity and inclusion” office at the University of Tennessee to putting “In God We Trust” stickers on cop cars, you’ve got the time and energy to come up with the funds for better pay on indigent defense.

You’ve got no one on your staff at the firm you run who relies on money from court appointed counsel.  One big reason I stopped attending Knoxville Bar Association “Barrister’s” events was listening to your Gay Street associates muse over whether they should enter their respective firms’ “Health and Wellness” programs for an extra $5,000 bonus.  You may write it off, but those of us who are running solo practices don’t.  Those of us who are in General Sessions on arraignment day or on Division Street looking for work are in agreement this isn’t a good look for you or your positions.

However “caustic” my language may be, I’m always willing to talk, Senator.  As long as we’re talking, we’re working for a solution.

2. With regards to Representative Lundberg, I have faith in his desire to see indigent defense bettered through the creation of the Task Force.  I want to make an unequivocal statement that at no point did he ever make any sort of statements that he wanted to “ruin my career” or otherwise.  I do take issue, respectfully, with the fact he’s got no one on the Task Force that has skin in the game when it comes to court appointed work.  I also take issue with his comments this Task Force was created to make sure “people with money hired lawyers instead of asking the state for a free one” and that he knew no rates of pay would ever raise for counsel in Tennessee. Finally, I take issue with the formation of the Task Force as currently constructed with no person relying on indigent defense work to keep the lights on.

3. The case my pal speaks of, in all fairness, was a stinker for him.  He’s a great lawyer in his own right, but sometimes we as lawyers have to attempt making chicken salad out of chicken shit.  That said, he’s right: I’ve had no mentors on which I could rely since I started practicing law, and have only recently managed to expand my sphere of influence and connections to a point where if I need help with an issue, or if I need to refer a client to someone, I can do that.  It took me five years to get there, but I’m grateful for the experience and the chance to become as resourceful as I am when dealing with cases.

4. I actually agree with a few of the points made by the Task Force, Chairman Koch, Representative Lundberg, and others.  There’s a problem with indigent defense funding when some counties hand out court appointed attorneys like candy and others stringently check to see if a person truly cannot afford reasonable attorney fees.

5. Despite my pal’s “brief” to the Task Force, I don’t take indigent cases anymore.  I think the work’s important, but I reached a point in my career where I had to make a decision between doing work I hated and not getting paid or actually doing work I loved and getting paid.  That jump meant going from taking every court appointed case I could find to spending more time marketing, networking, and learning about the way business actually works.

That said, we’re reaching a tipping point in this state when it comes to indigent defense.  New Orleans is the proverbial canary in the coal mine when it comes to this crisis.  Right now they’re so strapped for effective representation the Public Defender’s office has stopped taking cases.  That led to one judge releasing several people accused of violent crimes and a suit by the ACLU.  This is an issue to which the State of Tennessee cannot, and must not turn a blind eye.

To my readers in Knoxville or the surrounding areas: I’ll be speaking at the University of Tennessee, Room 132, starting at 11:00 AM on Friday, May 20 about the big issues facing the Task Force.  If you’re a lawyer reading this, you might want to consider coming to see the Task Force explain why rates of pay will never get raised.  If you’re a non-lawyer, you might want to attend to see just how the State views you if you’re charged with any offense.  It’ll be an interesting discussion.