Wichita State Shockers

WSU coach Jody Adams gets a chance to reunite with mentor Pat Summitt

Wichita State coach Jody Adams has words with the referee during a game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Koch Arena.
Wichita State coach Jody Adams has words with the referee during a game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Koch Arena. The Wichita Eagle

Nearly two decades have gone by since the last time Jody Adams set foot on campus of the University of Tennessee.

Like any former Vol, she has fond memories of her playing days in Knoxville. She won a national championship, played for legendary coach Pat Summitt and was there for the beginning of what would become the most powerful dynasty in women’s college basketball.

All of those memories will come rushing back when Adams and WSU assistant Bridgette Gordon, whose jersey hangs in the rafters at Thompson-Boling Arena, return to Knoxville on Tuesday when Wichita State (6-2) will play No. 11 Tennessee (6-2).

Adams keeps in regular contact with Summitt and she expects her former coach, who stepped down in 2012 due to early-onset dementia, to be in attendance on Tuesday.

It will be an important moment in the career of Adams, as she goes back to the place and the person that taught her the most.

“She taught me for four years and pushed me in the direction of getting out and growing up,” Adams said. “I’ve grown and had mentors in between then and now. I’m at a different time and a different place in my life. But who Pat has been to me and who she will always be to me is a great coach, a great mentor, and a great friend.”

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In the hills of Cleveland, Tenn., toughness was instilled in Adams by her no-nonsense father, Joe. Whether it was in sports or in life, Joe made sure Jody knew that hard work was the answer to everything. And Jody obeyed, outworking and outhustling her way to a scholarship offer from Tennessee.

But it was not until she arrived in Knoxville as a shy teenager that she developed the toughness that stays with her to this day. Summitt extracted the best from Adams, teaching her how to hone her intensity and become a leader.

“She wanted me to change my walk and my presentation because I was the point guard and she wanted me to look stronger and not so little,” Adams said. “She didn’t want my appearance to be soft in any way because I was running the team.”

From four years of winning memories, one stands out in Adams’ memory. It came near the end of the 1991 Midwest Regional final when Tennessee was clinging to a 2-point lead in the final minute against Auburn, a bitter SEC rival.

It was during the final timeout when Summitt was drawing up a defense to hold Auburn on the last possession. After telling her team to play strictly man defense, Summitt looked squarely at Adams, then a sophomore.

“She said, ‘Be ready, Jody, to step in and take a charge,’” Adams said. “And I stepped in on their best player and took the charge, just like she said.”

Tennessee went on to win the national championship that year with Adams as its point guard.

But the bond between Summitt and her former players isn’t lasting because of what she did for them on the basketball court. Gordon knows that better than most.

Raised by a single mother in a small Florida town, Gordon was one of the most sought-after high school prospects in 1985. Summitt was building a dynasty at Tennessee and had just finished coaching the U.S. women to a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics. “I mean, how could you go wrong in choosing Tennessee?” Gordon said.

Gordon would find out just how right she was after she graduated and returned home. It was then that her mother showed her four years of hand-written letters from Summitt, who had taken on the responsibility of keeping Gordon’s mother informed on how she was doing on the basketball court and in life.

“It brought tears to my eyes that Pat was taking time out of her busy schedule to write my mother,” Gordon said. “That touched my heart. A lot of coaches only care about what you can do for them. But with Pat, she saw the big picture. She cared about me as a person.”

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Listen to Adams speak after a Wichita State game, and it’s likely at some point she will refer to the “inches.”

It’s a phrased she has coined, even going as far as permanently having the word scrawled atop her white board in the locker room, but does not take complete credit for it.

Adams prides herself on developing her own style, soaking in knowledge from some of the brightest minds in basketball and twisting those lessons to fit her own ideals. But the inches, those she learned from Summitt.

“I use the word ‘inches,’ but she taught me the inches,” Adams said. “The inches in life, the inches in games. We talk about those things all the time and it’s the same the thing; it’s the details. That’s why it’s above my game-planning board.”

When Adams arrived at Wichita State in 2008, she formed the program around her beliefs that defense and toughness would win out. She recruited gifted athletes that wanted to be coached and she molded them into players who would turn WSU into a Missouri Valley power.

Gordon immediately accepted the invitation extended by Adams to join her fellow Tennessee graduate. She noticed how Adams handled herself, how she conducted practices, and the types of players she wanted. Gordon couldn’t help but laugh to herself.

“It’s what Pat did at Tennessee,” Gordon said. “Defense, defense, defense. That’s what Jody has instilled in her players and what she’s built her program around. It’s the same thing that worked for Tennessee.”

That intensity instilled in her by her father and sharpened by Summitt was initially criticized at Wichita State, where her early years featured mass defections in the offseason.

“That intensity with Jody can be misconstrued as mean or demeaning,” Gordon said. “But it’s just intensity. It’s passion; it’s love for what you’re doing. She cares about every single one of her players.”

Adams leaned heavily on Summitt during those years, as she tried to find the right balance between the intensity and caring. Adams was trying to turn around a losing program and it wasn’t easy, but Summitt was a rock for her during that time of need.

Summitt’s advice was invaluable because Adams knew she was one of the only people who would be straightforward.

“She is just such a solid person,” Adams said. “To have someone you can lean on and can confide in and be able to do that for such a long time in your life, it’s just such a secure friendship and mentorship. It’s something that I hold very special to my heart.”

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Adams and Gordon struggle to describe what it will be like walking onto the court with their former coach’s name on it. They expect a warm response from the crowd, welcoming home two of their former greats.

“I get chills right now just thinking about it,” Gordon said. “It’s going to be unreal.”

Both say they have received Facebook messages, texts, and phone calls from alumni eagerly awaiting their return. The coaching staff has already set up a trip for WSU’s players to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoville, where Gordon was inducted in 2007.

“Maybe we’ll get the VIP treatment from Bridgette,” WSU senior Kelsey Jacobs joked. “But when you take a step back after you hear them yell all day in practice, it’s crazy to think they played at that high of a level. That’s something that we all really respect. We’re blessed to have them as coaches.”

Adams worried that her history at Tennessee would be a distraction from the game itself. But this Wichita State team, coming off back-to-back Missouri Valley championships and NCAA Tournament appearances, was ready for something like this.

In many ways, this is the perfect timing for Adams to return home. Her system is entrenched at Wichita State and this team may be the best in her tenure. She is proud to come back with a team that plays the way she used to play for Summitt.

“I think this team exemplifies those things better than any team that I’ve ever coached,” Adams said. “It hasn’t always been easy. The kids have to give a lot of themselves to do those things and really buy into your concept, but this team has and they do it the best. I’ll be proud for my dad and for Pat to watch this team play.”

Going home is nice, but Adams didn’t sign up for this game for a trip down memory lane.

“We’re going there to win a basketball game, not for me, not for Pat Summitt, but because I want our kids to do well,” Adams said. “I’m in this for Wichita State and my kids and for us, not for any other reason. I want this for our kids more than anything.”