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NCAA WOMEN'S BASKETBALL

Sweet 1600

For Now, Summit and Conradt Have Regional Semifinal Business, but a Title Matchup Would Be a First for Two 800-Win Coaches

March 29, 2003|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

As the woman's NCAA basketball tournament turns Sweet 16 today, several tantalizing storylines are emerging.

They range from Louisiana Tech and Louisiana State staging a Bayou Classic in the West Regional to the Notre Dame-Purdue intrastate game in the East Regional. The latter two played for the 2001 championship, with Notre Dame winning its first title.

But the best storyline is several games away.

Should Tennessee and Texas reach the title game, the championship would, for the first time, match two coaches with 800 career victories -- Pat Summitt and Jody Conradt.

Summitt and Conradt began the season tied in victories with 788. Summitt, in her 29th season at Tennessee, reached the milestone by defeating DePaul, 76-57, on Jan. 14. Conradt, who has spent 27 of her 34 years as a coach with Texas, came aboard eight days later, beating Texas Tech, 69-58.

Asked what keeps them going -- besides the winning -- both Summitt and Conradt used the word "passion" in their explanations.

"Teaching is my passion," said Summitt, 50. "People say coaching is teaching, but there are people who [just] coach. I like teaching skills and fundamentals individually, then teaching collectively what brings together a team."

Said Conradt, 61: "I assume a lot of people choose their life's work on what's in their heart or their passion. Once you know what that passion is, the next glorious step is ability to make a living doing that. I don't know if everyone has that opportunity, but it's why I coach. You don't lose that easily."

Only six men's NCAA Division I coaches -- eight total -- have reached 800 victories. Summitt and Conradt are the only women to do it. Each has a national title. Summitt has six; only John Wooden, who won 10 men's titles at UCLA, has more.

"It is a huge, unbelievable milestone," said Joan Bonvicini, who has won 540 games in 24 years at Long Beach State and Arizona. "To be in the game that long and win that consistently is an amazing feat. To have their programs at the top again tells you why they are where they are."

Penn State Coach Rene Portland, whose Nittany Lions visit Tennessee today in a Mideast Regional semifinal, said: "They both did it in their own way, and they have unique styles. I thought [my own] 600 wins was good until I read what they did."

Both Summitt and Conradt, whose teams played each other in December, with Texas winning 63-62, have title contenders.

Summitt's Lady Vols (30-4), seeded No. 1 the Mideast, had little trouble eliminating Alabama State and Virginia. Tennessee faces Penn State today on the Lady Vols' home court at Knoxville, Tenn., where they are 42-0 in NCAA tournament games.

Summitt sounds excited about her team's title chances, although last season's Lady Vol team reached an NCAA-record 13th Final Four before losing to eventual champion Connecticut in a semifinal.

"This team has a better chemistry," Summitt said. "It's had stronger senior leadership due to the fact Kara [Lawson] and Gwen [Jackson] have taken on that responsibility. It is more balanced offensively. And we're more versatile on the defensive end as well."

Texas (27-5), seeded No. 2 in the West, has won 15 consecutive. The Longhorns are favored to end Minnesota's surprising tournament run Sunday at Palo Alto.

"That's what this team has done over the last couple of months of the season -- find a way to win," said Conradt after Texas' second-round 67-50 victory over Arkansas despite shooting only 39.7%. "We have finally figured out that, even when we don't shoot well [there are] things we can do to influence the game."

Neither coach shows signs of slowing down. But each had a moment where she almost left the bench permanently.

"It was 1984," Summitt said. "We played [USC] for the national title, something we hadn't yet won. That summer I also coached our Olympic team. And my dad, Richard Head, tried to convince me to get out of coaching because of the stress. I had convinced myself if we won the championship and a gold medal, I would really consider it.

"I appreciate Southern Cal didn't let us do it, thanks to Linda Sharp, Cheryl Miller and Cynthia Cooper. But that was my only soul-searching period. I've always listened to my father, and I knew -- because of how much I would invest in every team and every game -- it would take a toll. But I'm thankful I didn't because I would have regretted it -- and would probably be coaching somewhere else now."

Conradt was almost burned out by trying to be coach and women's athletic director from 1992 to the spring of 2001.

"Becoming an athletic director, that's how people think you progress in [education]," Conradt said. "But I got very sad at the idea of not coaching, so it didn't take long to say no. Then the next step was doing both jobs. Foolishly, I said yes.

"Dropping the AD duties re-energized me."

For those coaches who see 800 victories as a viable goal -- LSU's Sue Gunter (680) and Portland (621) are next in line -- Summitt and Conradt have advice.

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