On Dec. 20, 1995, Doug Bruno, the head coach of DePaul women’s basketball for 30 seasons, aimed to defeat the Tennessee Volunteers for the first time in program history. Although the Blue Demons lost 76-68, following the game, Bruno inhaled heartbreaking news, miles beyond a “L” in the box score.
“[Athletic director] Jeanie [Lenti Ponsetto] grabs me when I’m done with the media and says, ‘Coach, I have to tell you some bad news,'” he recalled.
Drotha Bruno, his 33-year-old sister, committed suicide at 8:30 a.m., jumping from the 12th-story window of her Lake Shore Drive Apartment. Hours later, unsettled and unable to sleep, Bruno parked himself near Lake Michigan and viewed her place in the distance.
The next morning, Pat Summitt, the then-head coach of the Lady Vols, planned on conducting a practice at Alumni Hall, the old home of Blue Demons’ hoops, for her team before its Christmas vacation. Since many of the DePaul basketball managers celebrated the holiday, Bruno informed them that he would setup the needed-equipment for Summitt’s bunch.
As he somberly dawdled into the area, Summitt assumed her competitor was still infused with pain from the loss. Then, Bruno explained his situation.
Prior to Tennessee’s workout, the two legends discussed the tragedy, providing Bruno with an unexpected comfort.
“We talked about how there are bigger things in life than just winning basketball games,” he said.
On Tuesday morning, the 64-year-old Summitt passed away after a five-year battle with early onset dementia, a form of Alzheimer’s Disease. Here’s what Bruno tweeted in the wake of her death.
The fight for gender equality in America and the rest of the world is the torch Pat Summitt passes to us all!!
Thanks for the fight Coach!!!
— Coach Doug Bruno (@CoachDougBruno) June 28, 2016
During a time usually meant for weeping, Bruno evidently held back his sorrow and recognized how she altered the landscape of women’s college basketball.
In 1971, the The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) established itself, administering women’s athletics and providing national championships for sports, such as soccer, softball, volleyball and basketball.
Yet, until Title IX, universities could sneak by sans possessing equivalent possibilities for each gender within their respective athletic departments. However, once the law was implemented a year later, women’s basketball programs began to blossom in every direction.
“Places like Delta State [University], Queens College, Mississippi College and Wayne Baptist [University] all provided opportunities for women before the big state schools did,” Bruno said.
Nonetheless, these teams failed to routinely find wins in their initial stages of existence. In 1974, though, the Lady Vols tossed Summitt the primary keys to surprising skeptical basketball junkies around the country, and she drove the program into the Tennessee-orange sunrise.
Incredibly, according to Bruno, Summitt collected only $200 a month when she started to roam Tennessee’s sideline. The former didn’t pick up a dime in his first tenure with the Blue Demons (1976-78). In her last contract, agreed to in 2009, she reeled in $1.4 million each campaign.
Over her 38-year coaching career (1,306 games), Summitt compiled 1,098 victories, the highest total by any Division I college basketball coach — men or women’s. In addition, she garnered eight national titles, 112 NCAA tournament wins, coached in 18 Final Fours and, most importantly, tallied a 100 percent graduation rate for those who completed their collegiate careers in Knoxville, Tennessee. Hence, Summitt raised the level of competitiveness, both on the court and in the classroom.
The Connecticut Huskies, who’ve cut down the nets in six of the last eight NCAA tournament championships, are a prime beneficiary of that enhanced success. They defeated Tennessee in the ’95 title game, clinching the school’s first ever crown in the sport. Subsequently, the teams have ensued in numerous blood baths, but head coach Geno Auriemma’s group holds a 13-9 edge. Aueriemma also recently passed John Wooden for the most college basketball titles (11).
“Coach Geno would tell you right now that she was the standard for what UConn aspired to achieve, and that created the great rivalry in women’s [college] basketball,” he said.
In order to achieve the illustrious status, Summitt forced her players to zone in on the defensive end of the floor. Thankfully, Bruno took notes and taught his Blue Demons to play just as aggressively. The style is paying off, as DePaul ranked No. 21 in Division I in turnover margin (plus-4.56) last season.
In the 1996-97 campaign, though, Summitt’s tenacious defense couldn’t slow down DePaul guard Kim Williams, who posted a career-high 41 points. The Volunteers knocked off the Blue Demons 94-83, but the coach wasn’t shy about feeding the opposing star praise.
“Many coaches would complain about how the team didn’t defend,” Bruno said. “Coach Summitt acknowledged how great Kim was, and that showed her class.”
While the two schools previously matched up at Tennessee’s Thompson-Bowling Arena, Bruno remembered the venue constantly blasting the song “Rocky Top,” including a chunk of lyrics, which he believed to represent the late head coach.
“When you played against her, between the lines, she was as mean as mink,” Bruno said. “When you were with her, after the game was over, she was as sweet as soda pop.”