This morning the news broke that legendary Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt passed away. The cause was early onset dementia, a hideous bitch goddess of a disease that robbed one of the best basketball minds ever of her abilities and gave her a tragic end. You might be wondering what this has to do with Purdue, other than the fact that she is one of the few coaches to approach Purdue alumnus John Wooden’s record of 10 national championships.
Well, her eight national titles and the way Tennessee dominated the sport of women’s basketball for two decades definitely had an impact on our own program. From 1987 until 2008 Tennessee won eight national championships. This included three in a row from 1996-98. At the time, Purdue was good, but it took a matchup with the Volunteers to make us great.
Let’s go back almost 18 years to November 15, 1998. A young T-Mill was a freshman living in Cary Quad at the time, and perhaps the biggest home game in the history of Purdue’s women’s program took place in Mackey Arena. We knew Purdue was going to be good. The team led by Stephanie White, Ukari Figgs, and Katie Douglas entered the season ranked fifth in the country. They would begin the season with a monumental task as No. 1 Tennessee, led by Chamique Holdsclaw, entered as the three-time defending national champion on a 46-game winning streak. they were the unanimous preseason No. 1 and many expected them to roll to a fourth straight title because Holdsclaw was by far the best player in the country.
Purdue won 78-68.
It wasn’t so much that Purdue won the game. Upsets happen in sports all the time (although not as much in women’s basketball when it is now UConn and everyone else). Purdue controlled the game throughout and was the better team all day. The Boilers never trailed after taking a 12-11 first half lead. Purdue even frustrated the legendary coach Summitt into a technical foul.
To date, That is Purdue’s only victory over the Volunteers. Of her 1,098 wins, seven of coach Summitt’s victories came against Purdue, including in the 2005 and 2008 NCAA Tournaments. That loss, one of only 208 in her career, completely changed the trajectory of Purdue women’s basketball. Suddenly Purdue was the No. 1 team in America, not Tennessee. The win seemed to give our ladies a boost of confidence that carried them beyond even their own lofty ranking. Purdue went from, “Hey, we’re pretty good and probably make a Final Four” to “Holy crap, we can win the whole damn thing.” That often does not happen in the first game of a season.
Tennessee would only lose two more times that season. They would lose once in SEC play before Duke would officially end their reign as NCAA champions with a 69-63 upset in the East Regional final. Purdue would only lose only once period. A week after beating Tennessee Purdue went to Stanford and lost 73-72 on a last second free throw. that loss served as further motivation, and Purdue would go on to crush skulls and win its first National Championship a few months later, toppling Duke in the title game.
That win over Tennessee though was huge. I have no doubt it gave Purdue the confidence to roll through the season. The Boilers completely dominated the Big Ten and won all six NCAA Tournament games by at least 13 points. It also started one of the best all-sports runs in school history as the women would be National runner-up two years later, the men’s team would reach three Sweet 16’s in a row (and even an Elite), and the Drew Brees guy was doing his thing too.
Even in defeat, however, Summitt was a teacher. Because she was so good she pushed Purdue to be even better. That game in Mackey Arena was a springboard because of her legendary status, so even we Purdue fans can thank her for our own national Championship. It is a testament to her greatness that we owe much of our success just by beating one of her best teams ever. At the time, Tennessee losing was almost unthinkable. Purdue stood in her way and helped make sure she did not when four straight titles, but it was her greatness that got her team to that point. Even in defeat, she made her opponents better.
That’s the mark of one of the greatest coaches of all time in any sport.