Team 120 and the Summitt Maxims

When Pat Summitt passed away this summer, VFL graphic artist Jeff Page created the above image to go with an allegorical story I’d written of her journey from the red clay fields of her (and my) youth to the pinnacle of her sport and Tennessee legend. It was our private way of mourning a woman who’d impacted us both. Public mourning for Pat was far different.

Pat Summitt’s Celebration of Life brought thousands to Thompson-Boling, and millions to the television broadcast. No Vols fan could have stayed dry-eyed when Peyton Manning suddenly choked up, relating a story he’d heard from Chamique Holdsclaw that even as Pat’s memory deteriorated, when she saw Peyton on television she’d say, “That’s my friend who comes to visit me. He’s my friend.” And when the crowd began to sing Rocky Top and the video of Pat singing the fight song in a UT cheerleader’s uniform was playing, who wasn’t singing along in their living room?

Interesting how well the Tennessee Volunteers are playing this year, in a season in honor of Pat Summitt.

Intangibles. They play such a role in sports. The motivations that elevate a team’s desire to win are the elements that allow athletes to transcend their difficulties or even their own abilities at times. They literally play at a higher level. And now, only three months after the death of a beloved Tennessee icon, the Tennessee Volunteers are undefeated and in the top ten.

A lot of people are still trying to figure out the Vols. Opinion is divided in sports media — are the Vols that good? Or are they just that lucky? Let’s be honest: any team that comes back from four double-digit losses is more than good, especially since three of those are teams that were ranked or are ranked now. But their luck also cannot be denied — a fumble in the end zone in OT that’s jumped on by Jalen Hurd for a touchdown to beat App State, the Miracle Between the Hedges that takes the Vols from lose to winner in a four-second span, five fumbles taken away from Virginia Tech to spur the rout in the Battle at Bristol.

And yet, that’s not what defines this team. Pat Summitt’s legacy defines this team. As she put it once herself:

1. There is always someone better than you. Whatever it is that you do for a living, chances are, you will run into a situation in which you are not as talented as the person next to you. That’s when being a competitor can make a difference in your fortunes.

Now heading into the first of two top ten back-to-back games, there’s no doubting the Volunteers are competitors. There’s also no doubting that the sports world in general thinks this is the week when the Vols’ luck runs out. But that in and of itself makes me wonder — how many of those pundits are taking into consideration that this isn’t just another year for UT athletics, but that this is the year of Pat?

Because when you think about it, Team 120 is epitomizing the tenets Pat Summitt preached throughout her career.

2. Quit? Quit? We keep score in life because it matters. It counts. Too many people opt out and never discover their own abilities, because they fear failure. They don’t understand commitment. When you learn to keep fighting in the face of potential failure, it gives you a larger skill set to do what you want to do.

Pat Summitt never quit at a darn thing in her whole life.

Team 120 obviously doesn’t either.

Tennessee football is famous for the maxims of General Robert Neyland, the original coaching icon of the Volunteers — served his country in two World Wars, architect of Neyland Stadium, engineer, a two-sport athlete turned into the greatest of UT coaches who never lost a game to Alabama’s own icon, Bear Bryant. Pat Summitt — winningest coach in basketball history, Olympic silver medalist as a player, gold medalist as a coach, and lodestar of women’s athletics on an international level — brought those maxims to the Lady Vols and followed them devotedly.

3. Here’s how I’m going to beat you. I’m going to outwork you. That’s it. That’s all there is to it.

Any way you look at it, Pat Summitt’s presence is hovering over this team, its coaches, and its fans, too. The same indefinable way that she glared down every obstacle she faced, either as a person or a coach, this team has the same, steely-eyed determination and the stubborn set of the jaw that was so beloved by Vol Nation. So when looking at this difficult challenge on Kyle Field this weekend, how can UT not believe?

4. Everyone thinks we might curl up and die, both programs. I don’t think it’s going to happen, so put away your hankies.

And that’s where we’re at right now. The world is waiting for the Volunteers to curl up and roll over like the overrated hype monster many want them to be. Texas A&M is also undefeated, also top ten, also riding the crest of what is supposed to be Kevin Sumlin’s breakout year. But the Vols have something the Aggies don’t. We have the maxims.

5. Discipline helps you finish a job, and finishing is what separates excellent work from average work.

Tennessee has outscored its opponents 111–31 in the second half. Finishing a game is its specialty. In many of those games, Tennessee’s players watched as opposing players were flattened on the field from cramps — which speaks volumes about the elevated strength and conditioning of this team. But what might really be the winning edge is the mental discipline. Not one single player is fazed by being behind, or what appears to be an insurmountable challenge. They just strap on their helmets, head onto the field, and take control.

6. Attitude lies somewhere between emotion and logic. It’s that curious mix of optimism and determination that enables you to maintain a positive outlook and to continue plodding in the face of the most adverse circumstances.

As we head into College Station, much of Vol Nation is nervous. They should be. Texas A&M is a formidable foe, and this isn’t a rivalry game by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, Aggies are strangely likable — the university, the team, and the fans aren’t easy to hate. But we don’t have to hate them. We just have to beat them.

Texas A&M headed into October 5–0 the last two years. In 2014, they lost game six by double digits and three games overall in October. In 2015, they lost game six by double digits and two games overall in October. A&M has been in a College GameDay game six times. Five of those games were in College Station. The Aggies are 0–6 in those games.

Tennessee’s defense is riddled with injuries. So far, against Florida and Georgia, that hasn’t cost the Vols the game but those absences were noticable. Two team leaders, Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, turned the ball over last week which led to ten Georgia points. There are issues with Team 120 that on the face of things should be troublesome.

And yet, the Vols are undefeated. 5–0 for the first time since 1998. Unbeaten heading into October, its two biggest division rivals salted away in the SEC East, and just like ’98 the phrase “team of destiny” is being kicked around in the media. Game six in 1998 was a 35–18 drubbing of the Alabama Crimson Tide, coming after a victory in Athens over #7 Georgia.

7. When you choose to be a competitor you choose to be a survivor. When you choose to compete, you make the conscious decision to find out what your real limits are, not just what you think they are.

Maybe what makes this team different isn’t something on the field. Maybe what sets this team apart is the indefinable spirit of an indomitable woman, the fighting spirit of a coach who defined a sport and became a legend. Maybe the difference this year is an element uniquely Tennessee’s.

Pat Summitt, and her maxims about never giving up.

The General would approve, because her maxims complement three of his lost ones:

23. One increasing purpose.
24. A quitter never wins & a winner never quits.
25. Keep everlastingly on the job.

Qualities the General, Pat Summitt, and Team 120 share. Maybe, Team 120 is what it is because in addition to General Neyland’s maxims, there is now a new lexicon to support I will give my all for Tennessee today.

Maybe, the Tennessee Volunteers have adopted a new set of maxims.

Pat Summitt’s maxims.