Categorized | Basketball, People

Reaching His First “Summitt”

By Julie Schwarz

Tyler Summitt, the new women's basketball coach at Louisiana Tech, learned about championships from his famous mother. (Photo: ESPN)

Tyler Summitt, the new women’s basketball coach at Louisiana Tech, learned about titles from his famous mother. (Photo: ESPN)

Lindsay Gottlieb obtained her first head coaching position for a Division 1 women’s basketball program at the University of California, Santa Barbara at age 30.  Then she moved north.  For the past three years, Gottlieb has been the head coach at the University of California, Berkeley, and last year she led her team to the Final Four.  Before her team’s deep run in the tournament, Gottlieb gained the necessary experience as an assistant coach for eight years at Syracuse, The University of New Hampshire and The University of Richmond.  She said those years were instrumental in developing her coaching skills, a step that Tyler Summitt has, in the traditional sense, mostly skipped.

Summitt, the son of now-retired Tennessee women’s Hall of Fame basketball coach Pat Summitt, became the head coach for the Louisiana Tech women’s basketball team on April 2, 2014.  At 23, Summitt is the youngest head coach in Louisiana Tech’s history.  He is the sixth person to hold that position since the program’s inaugural season in 1974.  The Lady Techsters have historically been a highly competitive team; the program holds the third highest winning percentage at .809 in women’s basketball history, trailing only Connecticut’s .821 and longtime rival Tennessee at .816 according to the NCAA.  But Louisiana Tech has failed to make the NCAA tournament in the last three years.

Summitt was an assistant coach for Marquette’s women’s basketball team for the past two seasons, a job he secured straight out of college.  “No 23-year-old would get a head coaching job after two years of coaching if there wasn’t some other reason factored in.  And that’s okay,” Gottlieb said in a phone interview.  “I think everyone sort of feels that he wouldn’t have the job if that wasn’t his pedigree, but it is, and I don’t think he should apologize for that.”

Gottlieb said she could understand if other coaches felt overlooked.  “It’s a little bit of a controversial thing because there are so many assistant coaches who have dedicated years to working in the profession and they don’t get those kind of opportunities,” Gottlieb said.  “So I’m aware that it is troubling to some people.  That being said, the name Summitt in women’s college basketball is like the name Kennedy in American politics.”

Gottlieb said she wishes success for Summitt and his team, and it’s hard not to root for the son of Pat Summitt.  While women’s college basketball has a relatively small following compared to men’s, Pat Summitt and her Tennessee Lady Vols were a powerhouse in that world.   Those who watched may remember Tyler Summitt being interviewed starting at age four, or may recall him cutting down the net with his mother when her team won the national championship in 1996 (and several other years).  He grew up surrounded by the media, played ball himself at Tennessee and blossomed into a coach in his own right.  And he endured the challenging reality of his mother’s premature retirement – because of early onset Alzheimer’s disease – from her own illustrious career.

He may be the good guy to root for, but Summitt recognizes that people are going to question his age.  “I think everybody looks at my age and they think of the regular business world where I would just now be getting started,” he said in a phone interview.  “But what they don’t realize is when I was 10 years old, 12 years old, 15 years old, I was in locker rooms, I was on the end of the bench, I was putting players through workouts, I was in practice.  In terms of experience – it doesn’t match my age at all.  I have so much experience that really can not be recorded with the number of years that I’ve had.”

Summitt credits his mother for his thick skin and strong work ethic.  “No matter if I’m 23, if I’m 60, if I’ve won zero games, if I’ve won 500 games, there’s always going to be at least one critic that says I’m not worthy,” he said.  “And I honestly don’t care if there’s 1000 critics or one critic, we’re just going to go to work every single day and focus on what we can control.”

Those who know Tyler Summitt pay no attention to the naysayers.  Landry Kosmalski (Summitt affectionally refers to him as his own “Coach K”) was Summitt’s coach in high school.  Kosmalski says the youngster was bred for success.  “I can tell you from knowing him as long as I have, [Tyler] is as prepared as anyone 15 or 20 years older because he’s been able to see the workings of teams,” said Kosmalski, the head coach of the men’s team at Swarthmore College.  “He’s seen how his mom has made decisions, dealt with different situations and coached.  He has a level of preparedness that a lot of us would die for.”

Louisiana Tech’s Athletic Director Tommy McClelland agreed.  Before getting hired, Summitt was interviewed by McClelland and his colleagues for more than five hours on two separate days.  McClelland was impressed with Summitt’s maturity, coaching ability and his interest in developing the players on and off the court.  In the first interview, McClelland presented Summitt with a mock scenario; he wanted to know how the young coach would initially address the team should he get the job.  Summitt then proceeded to act out exactly what his first speech to the team would entail.  “What was so impressive to me was he had already memorized the names of the players.  He already knew our team,” McClelland said.  “He, in some way, shape or form, mentioned every player in various scenarios.  In a ten or fifteen minute period, he not only shared his vision of this team, but he had memorized their names.  He had been preparing for this moment his entire life.”

McClelland, who obtained his first Athletic Director position at the young age of 25, said he might have been even more skeptical than others of Summitt’s age.  “I know how tough it was for me, I know the challenges that come with being young,” McClelland said.  “But when I visited with [Summitt], all of that faded away.  What was there was a young but mature coach who was ready to start his purpose.”

The NCAA does not require schools to submit coaches’ ages at the time of hiring, so the success of young coaches is hard to evaluate.  Pat Summitt became the head coach of the Lady Vols at age 22.  She went on to win 1,098 games and eight national titles over a 38-year career, and is the winningest coach by number of victories (in women’s and men’s college basketball) of all time.

Among women’s coaches, Geno Auriemma, the coach of University of Connecticut for the past 29 years, was 32 when he started.  Villanova coach Harry Perretta was hired at age 22, a year younger than Tyler Summitt.  Muffet McGraw, the head coach of Notre Dame, was first hired at age 28 at Lehigh University.  There are other coaches in women’s basketball who were hired at a young age who have succeeded, and Tyler Summitt, might be the next one.

“It’s funny, I see a lot of kids growing up wanting to be firefighters or police men,” he said.  “I always wanted to be a head coach for a woman’s basketball team.  That was always the goal.”

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