The Lady Vols are in a league of their
ownand this year's team might be its best yet. Here's how they made
by Betty Bean
Faces bright and expectant, resplendent in orange sweatshirts and jackets,
planted in front-row seats slap behind the Tennessee bench, two 13-year-olds
watch 11 tall women going through warm-ups. Melissa Klopfenstein, a 7th-grade
forward averaging 12 points per game, follows Chamique Holdsclaw's silky
glide to the basket in the lay-up drill. Keeshia Smith, an 8th-grade point
guard with a 20 point-per-game average, fixes her gaze on Kellie Jolly, who
is pumping in a dead-on series of nothing-but-net three-pointers.
Tipoff is at 2 p.m., and the girls have been up since 4 that morning when
Melissa's dad, Bob, got them out of bed and piled them into the car to drive
down to Kentucky. They were a good distance from their home in Jackson Center,
Ohio (near Toledo), before the girls were awake enough to start asking what's
the rush, and Bob finally owned up that they were really going to Memorial
Coliseum in Lexington to see the back-to-back national champion Tennessee
Lady Vols play Kentucky. They arrived early enough to claim the best seats
in the house.
What other team, Melissa is asked, would she endure such hardship to see?
She looks incredulous.
"You mean if there was no Tennessee?" she responds, clearly too polite to
answer with the big "Duh" the question deserves. There's nothing but orange
in her hope chest.
The two Ohio girls aren't the only budding stars who have traveled a long
way to watch the Big Orange dismember the Big Blue. A quick cruise around
the crowd turns up young players from Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and points
beyondmany in Pat Head Summitt Basketball Camp T-shirtswho hope
to find letters from Summitt in their mailboxes one day. A half a generation
ago, girls like these would have more likely found their aspirations in the
pom pon squad than on the hardwood court.
A small but significant segment of the audience is composed of a talented
few high school players who have already caught the discerning eye of Lady
Vol recruiting coordinator Mickie DeMoss. Foremost among the future prospects
is Shalon Pillow, a stellar post player from Taylor High School in Addyston,
Ohio, who signed with the Lady Vols last November and has driven over with
her parents to preview her future. At almost 6'4", she is tree-top tall and
jaw-droppingly lovely. She walks over to the bench to greet DeMoss in front
of Melissa and Keeshia, who have brought along a camera in hopes of getting
some post-game shots of the team.
Coach Summitt's Lady Vols have become a genuine sports phenomenon that has
helped lift women's basketball to new heights of popularity. They're inspiring
new generations of women players, especially with stars like the Fab Four
freshmen known as Meek, Meek, Ace, and Tree (Tamika Catchings, Semeka Randall,
Kristin Clement, and Teresa Geter), who account for more than half the team's
points, blocks, and steals. In the world of women's basketball, they're
"America's Team." Andall hype asidethey've achieved it through
superb coaching, stellar recruiting, academic excellence, and great athletes.
That Kid Can Play!
DeMoss is a little bitty black-haired dynamo who stands knee-high to most
of the players she recruits. She is knownhands downas the best
in the business. A native of Delhi (pronounced dell-high), Louisiana, she
played point guard at Louisiana Tech, coached and earned a masters at Memphis
State, and called Summitt in 1979 for advice before accepting the head coaching
job at Florida, thereby becoming the youngest head coach at a Division I
school. The two had gotten to know each other at USA Basketball trials.
"Men in the coaching profession call it a fraternity, so I guess for women,
it's a sorority...I was straight out of college, and she's three or four
years older than me, but already she was a legend. We hit it off, and when
I went to Florida, that gave us a bond...I turned to her and asked'Am
I too young to do this?' I was 23."
The Florida gig didn't work outshe calls it "a learning experience"
and in 1983 she resigned to accept a position as recruiting coordinator at
Auburn where, in two years time, she built a reputation as a great recruiter.
When Summitt's longtime assistant Nancy Darsch resigned to accept a head
coaching job at Ohio State, Summitt asked DeMoss to consider coming to Tennessee.
DeMoss was torn:
"We'd had two really good recruiting classes back-to-back, and Tennessee
was a little down, by their standards..." She talked to Auburn head coach
Joe Ciampi, then took a weekend to check out the scene in Knoxville.
"Once I got here, I thought, man, this would really be an opportunity for
me. If I can convince people to come to Auburn, Alabama, surely I can convince
people to come to Knoxville, Tennesseebigger city, better location..."
Still, it was a hard choice. Auburn had just signed Vicky Orr, who would
become a three-time All-American and lead the team to three consecutive Final
Fours, challenging Tennessee for the title in 1989 (the year the Lady Vols
won their second national championship).
"I had recruited most of those kids on that team and felt a lot of pressure
that year," DeMoss says.
Recruiting is a deadly serious, often viciously competitive enterprise governed
by strict NCAA rules. The process starts with rating services and summer
tournaments, as well as word-of-mouth, and kicks into high gear during July
when three of the four Lady Vol coachesSummitt, DeMoss, and Holly
Warlickhit the road, attending 25 different tournaments and all-star
"We have to target which camps and which kids we want to see. We start looking
early, and by the time they're juniors, we've targeted players that can help
us. We zero in their junior year."
Five years ago, at an AAU tournament in Chattanooga, she zeroed in on a skinny
girl whose musical name "...had been floating around a little, and when I
was watching the New York Liberty Bell team, she just put on a show. Probably
25 coaches were there, and everybody's jaws just dropped open. I thought,
'This kid can play.' She weighed 20 pounds less than she does now, and was
wiry, lanky, and a little out-of-control. I said 'Pat, [you've got to see]
this kid from New York...' We'd never signed a kid out of New York City.
'We're surely going to give it a shot...'"
Once she was a junior, Tennessee could start sending her mail. Then, Summitt
and DeMoss put in a call to Astoria, Queens, for the head coach at Christ
the King High School who was on his way to his fourth consecutive state
championship (This year, Christ the King is rated the number one high school
team in the country).
Impressing the coach was important, but the person Tennessee really had to
win over was Chamique Holdsclaw's grandmother, June Holdsclaw, with whom
she has lived since she was a small child.
"The key was selling June. Chamique's grandmom is a huge influence in her
life. June is from Alabama and loves the South. That helped amazingly. June
had talked to Chamique about what the South was like, how much she loved
it and one day hoped to go back...That opened Chamique's mind'Hey,
it's not all that bad.'"
Academics were high on June's list, too, so she was pleased when she learned
that all Summitt's players who complete their eligibility have also graduated.
"Her grandmother was interested in discipline, and she liked Pat's brand
of discipline. A lot of coaches use that against us; they say Pat's too mean,
that she's a bear to deal with. But we don't hide it. We tell them she's
firm but she's fair. If you can't handle the discipline, you can't come to
Tennessee. We tell them that straight up, because they've probably been painted
a pretty grim picture by other coaches. It's true. If you don't go to class,
you don't play. You don't practice hard, you don't practice any more...
"We both went up there for the home visit, and Chamique's grandmother liked
what she heard."
Clement, Randall, and Catchings, by the way, say they heard all the Tennessee
badmouthing, but it had a boomerang effect.
"I definitely did hear that negative stuff," says Randall, who was aggressively
recruited by Connecticut. "'They've got Chamique there, and you're not going
to get playing time...' But Pat did her job saying 'This is what we could
do for you at Tennessee.'"
"That stuff is a turn-off," says Clement. "You want to hear about Tennessee
and only Tennessee. Tell me about your program..."
Geter, the top player in South Carolina, says she heard it more from other
players than from coaches.
"They said I'd be coming to a program where I'd have to fight for scoring
time, but I think that's the best way to go, if you want to be the best."
One year, DeMoss remembers, prize prospect Dana Johnson was visiting when
Summitt kicked somebody out of practice.
"I thought 'Oh, Lord, we just lost one.' I went over and said, 'I hope that
doesn't scare y'all too bad.' Dana's mamma said, 'Oh, no. That's why I want
my daughter to come here. Pat won't settle for anything but the best.'"
Signing day is November 14, and schools can start making weekly calls directly
to prospects July 1 before their senior year.
"The kids can call you as much as they want, and Chamique called me a lot,
at least once or twice a week. We really hit it off, connected. She told
me at the end of Augustshe remembers the exact date'Mickie, I'm
coming to Tennessee.'
"Well, November is a long time from August, so I said, 'Chamique, don't tell
me that if you don't mean it.' I didn't tell anybody. I've been in the business
long enough to know an 18-year-old can change their mind with the wind..."
That fall, Holdsclaw visited Penn State and Tennessee and canceled her other
Today, she is being called the best player in the game.
"I don't think anybody thought she'd be as good as she is," DeMoss says.
"She took her game to the next level. Lots of times, you don't know that's
going to happen. You don't know what's inside a kid's head, and inside their
hearthow they're going to make the head and the heart transition..."
Hitting the Books
Follow one of Summitt's athletes to the classroom and you'll find her sitting
somewhere in the first three rows. It's a requirement. DeMoss gets them here
and it's Kerry Howland's job to make sure they stay and succeed.
Howland, who was a UT swimmer as an undergraduate, a teacher in the Knox
County schools, and then a graduate assistant in the department before she
came on full-time in 1985, is assistant athletic director for academic and
Her job is "...to take care of the student part of being a student athlete.
That's a pretty big world. The bottom line of the academic part is to make
sure that student athletes abide by eligibility standards and that they graduate.
The student life part goes into career planning and placement, community
outreachlife skills is what the NCAA calls it."
Graduation rate is a huge selling point with parents of recruits. UT's women
athletes have a 90 percent overall for those who exhaust their eligibility,
100 percent for Summitt's basketball players who have done the same. The
school year begins with a goal-setting meeting conducted by Howland and the
"We lay down the law about class attendance, mandatory study hall, tutorial
guidelines, time managementstructuring the little time they do have.
They're to be students first, athletes second."
So far, this year's freshmen have done well, in part because DeMoss doesn't
recruit players who can't cut it academically.
"We make it clear that's what's expected of them...I think Mickie has the
luxury to really look at what kind of students the recruits are."
Howland came on full-time the same year as DeMoss and Warlick"exactly
when the NCAA started spotlighting academics in athletics..."
She is proud that the program has never lost a player due to academic failure.
NCAA rules set practice time at 20 hours a week, including conditioning,
weight training, and films. Top that off with mandatory class attendance
and mandatory study hall 6-10 hours a week (until a 2.5 grade point average
is achieved and maintained), and it's easy to see that freshmen have very
little time to get in trouble.
Howland also speaks of the "head/heart transition."
"This is a big adjustment for them, mostly because of time demands. My student
life staff's biggest goal is to make that transition as smooth as possible..."
The Lady Vols are in the process of "adopting" Shannondale Retirement Home
as part of their community outreach program.
"We think it's so good for our student athletes to see different parts of
the community. We do a lot of community outreach, and I want to do more..."
Howland agrees with the rest of the world that this year's recruits are indeed
"I hear Pat and Mickie and Holly and [Assistant Coach] Al [Brown] say how
much fun they are to coach, and I can totally relate, because that's the
way they are academically...We got to be a Rolls-Royce program that can attract
this caliber of student athletes through a lot of hard workwhen you
work with Pat Summitt, you work hard, or you don't last long..."
Meek, Meek, Ace, and
It is December 12, and an Alberta Clipper has plunged Knoxville into a deep
freeze that's seeping into cavernous Thompson-Boling Arena and raising goose
bumps on Tamika Catchings' arms as she signs autographs for the fans lined
up three-deep to see her. The freshman forward sharpshooter has just been
a major contributor in a come-from-behind victory over Illinois, where her
sister Tauja is a sophomore. Her mother Wanda is waiting to see her, and
so are her father, Harvey, and her brother, Kenyon. Bags of ice are taped
to her shins to ease her leg cramps, and her teeth chatter as she smiles
and poses for upwards of 100 pictures. The police officer with her keeps
asking if she wants to leave. She shakes her head and stays until she signs
every last T-shirt, every drink cup, every hat bill, every poster and ticket
stub and program that's put before her. Then she rises slowly and limps toward
her family. She is 18 years old.
This year's "Fabulous Four" freshmen are making that head/heart transition.
Jaguar-quick off-guard Semeka Randall is an effervescent personality whose
passion for the game may make her the greatest Tennessee crowd-pleaser since
Ray Mears put players on unicycles. Randall and Catchings were named 1997
co-players-of-the-year by Parade Magazine. Nancy Leiberman Cline,
in a USA Today column on freshmen standouts, calls Catchings "the
next truly great player."
Quiet, thoughtful Teresa "Tree" Geter is already the leading shot-blocker
in the SEC.
Kristin "Ace" Clement, hindered by missing a month of practice due to a stress
fracture in her foot, has just begun to show why she was the most-recruited
point guard in America.
DeMoss calls Randall "a keeper the first time we saw her," and the coaches
love to tell the story of how the Cleveland, Ohio, standout, who committed
to Tennessee early despite being intensely recruited by UConn's Geno Auriemma,
kept in close touch last year and agonized during the tough, early-season
run when the team lost 10 games.
"She called either Pat or me or somebody about every day. She really became
part of our lives...when we would get beat, she would call. She'd say, 'Y'all
gotta start picking up the ball full-court.' I'd say we didn't have the depth.
She'd say, 'When I get there, can I do it?' I'd say 'Sure, honey.'"
Randall, DeMoss says, is "...really special. She's the kind of kid that feeds
off the crowd. I could not see her playing anywhere that did not draw big
crowds. It would be such a waste."
Randall, by the way, remembers her phone calls a little differently: "I'd
call Pat after a loss and say, 'Are you OK? You'll get 'em next time,' and
I'd tell her to be positive and stay focused..."
Ace Clement, who made lots of unofficial surprise visits to colleges on her
own, made the process easy for DeMoss and Summitt.
"Ace committed to us when she was a junior. She was the most sought-after
point guard in country. We were just absolutely thrilled."
Summitt and DeMoss went up to Philadelphia (where Clement was on her way
to breaking Wilt Chamberlain's high school scoring records) to see her play
her junior year and went over to visit the athletic director at Villanova.
"We left a message for her, and the phone rang and it's Ace. We let her know
we were going to be at her game, and her mom says, 'Ace has something to
tell you...' We get on the speaker phone, and she says, 'I just wanna tell
both of you I'm going to come to Tennessee.' We were just totally shocked
and thrilled. We said are you sure? She said yes, and she told other coaches
to quit writing her."
Recruiting Catchings was a different matter entirely.
"It was a strange recruiting situation," DeMoss says. "I saw her when she
was a freshman, like Semeka, and I kept battling in my mind: 'Who's better,
Catchings or Randall, Randall or Catchings?' But in the end, it's like comparing
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. They bring different things to the table.
"When I knew we were in really good shape with Randall and Ace, I said there's
no way we'll get Catchings. Then, I started hearing from other coaches,
'Catchings wants to go to Tennessee.' Unlike Semeka, she really wasn't a
phone person. She didn't sound excited to hear from mereal noncommittal.
We probably talked to her once every two weeks, where we spoke to Semeka
every day. We'd get Tamika's mom on the phone and say, 'Are we even in the
ballpark?' She'd say 'Oh, yes. She loves Tennessee.' We'd say, 'Can we narrow
it down to five?'"
Two years ago, Randall and Catchings were on the Junior National team together
and made a road trip to Brazil. DeMoss faxed them something daily.
"I'd hear back from Semekanothing from Tamika. We'd never hear from
her, but we kept recruiting her, just stayed in there."
Catchingswho, like Holdsclaw before her, received the Naismith Award
as the country's top high school player her senior yearwas courted
by a bunch of schools, and DeMoss worried most about Illinois, because Tauja
Catchings plays there, and it's not far from the Chicago home of her father,
former NBA player Harvey Catchings.
But Catchings now says she knew since 8th grade that she would come to play
Finding Teresa Geter was a true bonus point, says DeMoss, because her high
school coach hadn't promoted her very much.
"I saw Teresa play in the AAU between her sophomore and junior year, and
she blocked nine shots. I saw her jump up and take a shot out of the air.
I thought, 'Man, I better stay here a little longer. This kid can play!'
Her athletic ability, to jump up and knock a shot out of the air, her
"Holly [Warlick] does a lot of recruiting out of South Carolina, so when
I got Teresa's name, I said 'Holly, I want to turn this kid over to you...'
Pat and I went over to watch her play in the state championship, and she
put on a show..."
Geter, DeMoss says, is "very shy. She hasn't had the exposure the other three
[freshmen] have had, but she is one of the most popular kids on the team."
So Tennessee has recruited maybe the best bunch of freshmen ever. So what
does DeMoss do for an encore?
Enter Shalon Pillow and Michelle Snow.
"We thought we could use a little help on the inside. Shalon has great speed
and good agility for a big girl. She's a very good rebounder and adds lots
of size. I think she's going to be a very good player for us, a very good
rebounder. Michelle is from Pensacola, 6'5" with a slender build. Talk about
a shot blocker! Shalon is a power-type player, but Michelle will be more
of a finesse-type player."
Only two? Connecticut has recruited a whole gym full.
"You can't get greedy," says DeMoss. "True, UConn signed a good class, but
they needed a lot. We didn't need a lot. You go after these high school All
Americansthey're not going to be happy sitting on the bench for too
long. How do you compare their [next year's freshman] class to ours? In my
opinion, there's no comparison. I just think this is a very special
classwork ethic, maturity, they're the total package. It's an amazing
class. They're inseparable."
Geter, whose suitemate in the dormitory is the ebullient Randall, confirms
"I love all of them...I was feeling kind of down, it being my first birthday
away from home, September 29, and I was kind of upset, and Semeka went and
told Ace and Meek how I was feeling. Later that night I went to Tamika and
Ace's room and they sang 'Count On Me.'"
"We put her in a chair and turned all the lights out, put a candle on the
cake and sang to her," Clement says. "Count on Me."
Back in Lexington after the game, Melissa and Keeshia are collecting autographs.
They get Ace, Tree, Elzy, Jolly, Stephens, the two freshman Meeks. They watch
for Holdsclaw, and when a little boy comes through and says Chamique's already
outside on the bus, the two girls hustle out of the building to look for
her, Michelle's father leading the way.
The players believe they have a responsibility to their fans, particularly
to little girls like Melissa and Keeshia.
"It's a great honor," says Randall, who used to write reports on the feats
of superstar Cheryl Miller.
"Knowing that little kids are going to be out there, looking up to us, makes
us practice harder," says Geter. "We want to represent good examples."
Catchings remembers mostly looking to male players for inspiration:
"Now, we're in the position where little girls are coming up and looking
to us. People always considered us tomboys and stuff like that. It just shows
how women's basketball is coming up."
"Yeah," adds Randall "It's a wake-up call. We're taking it to a new level
for a lot of people."
"We'll never see another team quite like this one," she says. "We're going
to spoil our fans. You can't clone a Holdsclaw or a Randall or a Catchings
or a Geter or a Clement."