Rural Methodist roots: Pat Summitt never hid her quiet, but deep, faith

Rural Methodist roots: Pat Summitt never hid her quiet, but deep, faith

Once a year, Seymour United Methodist Church held a "Laity Day" in which folks from the pews would handle all the clergy stuff one Sunday -- including the sermon.

The year was 1984, early in the Rev. Charles Maynard's decade at this fledgling congregation near Knoxville, Tenn. He already knew that one active member had a knack for motivational speaking, since she coached the University of Tennessee's Lady Vols basketball team.

"This was before she turned into 'PAT SUMMITT,' you know? For me she was just a lady at church named 'Pat,' " said Maynard, now the district superintendent of the region's Maryville District. "I asked her to speak and she said she didn't feel comfortable doing that sort of thing. …

"But the next year she said, 'Yes.' She talked about teamwork and linked everything to people having their own roles in the Body of Christ. It was all very biblical and she did a great job. I mean, she's Pat Summitt."

Things started changing after she coached the U.S. team to gold at the 1984 Olympics and the "Lady Vols started winning everything in sight," he said.

One thing didn't change. While Summitt's work demanded lots of time and travel, her family stayed as "active at church as the coach of a national powerhouse could possibly be," said Maynard. "It was pretty obvious that she had been raised in a Methodist church in rural Tennessee. It showed. Her faith went down deep."

Summitt's death at age 64, after a five-year fight with Alzheimer's disease, unleashed a national outpouring of tributes.

John Wooden, a faithful man

As the decades passed, the coach got used to hearing people call him a hero, an icon and even a saint -- even though he reminded them that only God knows the truth about any man. It was common to see the former English teacher reading the classics. But he also read his Bible daily and rarely missed church, so some friends called him the "reverend." That was probably for the best, since he disliked his other nickname -- the Wizard of Westwood.

John Wooden's own list of heroes was short and symbolic. At the top was his father, Joshua, followed by Abraham Lincoln. Among those who lived during his 99 years of life, he greatly admired the selfless service and deep faith of Mother Teresa.

It's hard to find heroes in a world wracked by scandals, corruption, infidelity and greed, Wooden once told me, during a 1990 telephone conversation just before the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament ended in Denver. But these painful realities only raise the stakes for people whose callings can lead to fame.

"When anyone is in a profession that is constantly putting them in the public eye, then they have to feel that they have a unique responsibility," he said. On the other side of this tricky equation, he added, some "people want you to be perfect. But we're not perfect. We're all fallible, flawed people. That's the reality of life."

Wooden had planned to come to Denver and take part in an event he rarely missed, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast at the Final Four. However, he decided it was too soon to return to a setting he had always shared with Nellie, his wife of 53 years, who died on March 21, 1985. He was still grieving.

After the coach's death on June 4, waves of media tributes focused on his stunning final years at UCLA -- when his teams won 335 games and lost 22, while winning 10 NCAA championships in 12 years. But Wooden was also an outstanding student at Purdue University and the first three-time consensus All-American in history. He was the first person enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and as a coach.

Many Americans also learned poignant details about the marriage of Nellie and John Wooden, including his ritual of writing a love letter to her on the 21st of every month after her death, producing stacks of envelopes wrapped in ribbons on her pillow.

Wooden's favorite scripture passage was 1 Corinthians 13 and it guided his relationships with his wife, family and players. That chapter ends with these famous words: "So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

When working with secular audiences, Wooden used a nondenominational approach to life's great lessons -- which led to his famous "Pyramid of Success" image, built on common virtues such as "skill," "enthusiasm," "industriousness," "patience" and "faith." Former players also learned to recite his folksy sayings, such as, "Be quick, but don't hurry," and "It is what we learn after we know it all that really counts."

But Wooden shared other sayings, when the time was right, including this one: "Basketball is not the ultimate. It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live. There is only one kind of life that truly wins, and that is the one that places faith in the hands of the Savior. Until that is done, we are on an aimless course that runs in circles and goes nowhere."

In the 1990 interview, the coach stressed that sports are important and can be used to build character. However, sports can also "tear down character" if twisted into a win-at-all-costs brand of faith.

Sports are like politics, business, the arts and organized religion, he said. All of these callings require people to make hard decisions and people are free to make good choices and bad choices. People are also free to admire and follow bad leaders, as well as good ones.

"You see, the truth is somewhere in between. It's wrong to turn people into idols. But it's also wrong to lose hope, to believe that we can't find good examples to inspire us," said Wooden. "We need role models. … Maybe role models are getting harder to find, these days. That doesn't mean that there aren't any worth finding."

Saving the Baylor brand name

WACO, Texas -- Looking out his window, athletic director Ian McCaw has been watching workers tear up the turf in Baylor University's football stadium one more time.

The environment is brutal in there, and not just because the Bears play Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and other Big 12 powers. Central Texas offers searing heat and then its share of ice. Since 1950, Baylor has tried grass, various brands of fake grass, real grass again and now Prestige System artificial turf.

"We're committed to making changes," said McCaw, a young sports management professional who arrived in the midst of Baylor's recent siege of scandals and woe. "We're moving forward. We think this is going to work out fine."

McCaw was talking about the grass, but he could have been defending his own turf. The environment has been brutal for months, with the world's largest Baptist school facing a searing media spotlight and the cold reality that when many fans hear "Baylor" they now think of death, drugs and dirty dollars, not dedication to Christian principles.

Surely the grass was greener at the University of Massachusetts, where McCaw had done his graduate studies and returned to direct a 23-sport athletic program. But after one successful year, and two weeks before moving his wife and four children into a newly constructed home, he answered the call to help resurrect Baylor's reputation.

"From a branding, marketing standpoint, we know what we have to do," he said. "We have to position ourselves to the whole Baptist and Protestant community as the flagship, much as Notre Dame always has been for Catholics. ... To compete at the highest level, we're going to have to have that kind of brand.

"We certainly can't try to hide what Baylor is, or what Baylor is supposed to be."

But that brand name also raises questions in an era when schools with small markets and high academic standards face brutal pressures to cut corners. Meanwhile, this is a boom time for Christian colleges and universities, along with their athletic programs. Many are now asking: What does it mean to have "Christian" athletics?

It doesn't mean all of the school's athletes have to be Christians, said Grant Teaff, a Baylor coaching legend and, for the past decade, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. But dedicated Christian coaches are a must.

"You can't say, 'Find me the best Christian defensive back you can and go sign him.' You can't compete like that," he said. "But that doesn't mean that, if one of the top defensive backs in the country is a strong Christian kid, you can't look him in the eye and tell him Baylor is where he would feel right at home."

It's also time for these coaches to admit that larger schools will sign almost all the top blue-chip recruits. However, Teaff noted that most of these phenoms -- in basketball and perhaps soon in football -- linger only one or two years in college. At some point, teams led by experienced, loyal juniors and seniors may start winning more games against the freshmen and sophomore superstars.

"The world says to these young men, 'Get as much as you can as soon as you can. Get your hand out -- right now,' " said Teaff. "Schools like Baylor can't compete in that game. ... But a school like this has other strengths and it can't be afraid to use them."

Schools that emphasize academics and spiritual values will also need stronger ties to national networks of ministries, home-school families and Christian high schools that stress athletics, noted McCaw. The evidence is strong that schools emphasizing faith are especially attractive to top female athletes.

Another trend may help. As Third World churches grow in power, global recruiting efforts will increasingly affect sports such as soccer, track, baseball and basketball. Missionaries often packed sports equipment with their Bibles.

But earning the trust of parents remains the key.

"There is a growing percentage of parents that want their children to go to a Christian college, yet they also want to see their children compete in Division I athletics. If you want a quality, Christian education and you want to compete at the highest level in athletics, how many options do you have? Where are you going to go?"