By Ryan McCarthy
It was the summer of 1987. Bonnie Henrickson just wrapped up her first year as a graduate assistant at Western Illinois University.
With nothing more than a determination to work, Henrickson took advantage of WIU head coach Kelly Hill’s connection to Tennessee assistant Holly Warlick from their time together at Nebraska.
Hill put in a call to the Lady Vols to see if Henrickson could help out with the annual Pat Summitt Basketball Camp.
Knowing no one, Henrickson picked up her things from Macomb, Ill., and drove to Knoxville to work as a camp counselor.
Henrickson remained quiet and composed all week, but then lunch time came around one day and people were looking for someone to do Dana Carvey’s Saturday Night Live “Church Lady” sketch for the skit part of the camp.
“Bonnie comes across as a little stoic until you get to know her,” Mickie DeMoss, former long-time Tennessee assistant and current assistant coach for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever said. “When she did the ‘Church Lady,’ we just all fell out. We all said, ‘Bonnie’s doing that.’”
Henrickson completed the skit decked out in a wig and dress picked out by some other camp workers. It became one of the funniest sketches of the week.
“I just remember that she was hysterical,” former team manager and current Tennessee Assistant AD for Compliance and Operations for Todd Dooley said. “Her personality and her sense of humor always had something funny to say or do.”
Dooley was working the camp at the same time as Henrickson.
What Henrickson appreciates more than a few laughs was her priceless networking and eventual friendships that she made with many of the coaches.
Henrickson faced off against then and current Tennessee legendary head coach Pat Summitt in Kansas’ Sweet 16 game on March 24.
Timeline: Bonnie Henrickson’s Road to the NCAA Tournament
Throughout the years, Henrickson has been fortunate to get to know Summitt in small increments.
She’s sat in on dinners where some of the coaching elite discussed the growth of women’s basketball and the development of the game, among other subjects.
“There’s so much seriousness and it’s so competitive, but you can appreciate people when you’re sitting next to them and laugh and share stories,” Henrickson said.
Summitt is the standard for women’s basketball. Eight National Championships. 18 Final Fours. 20 All-Americans.
And that doesn’t even include all the charity work that she’s done to grow the women’s basketball game.
This year has been especially big for Summitt, as her “We Back Pat” campaign has drawn national attention because of her diagnosis with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.
“The game of women’s basketball wouldn’t be where it’s at today without Pat Summitt, and that says a lot about who she is,” Dooley said.
Summitt had a reduced role this year, including not meeting with the media regularly and sitting on the bench during much of the games.
But the Volunteers came within one game of reaching another Final Four before running into the buzzsaw of the Baylor Lady Bears in the Elite Eight.
Summitt has relied on three former head coaches and associated head coach Holly Warlick, who played for Summitt from 1976-1980 and has been an assistant since 1985, for help with coaching in her condition.
“Like we said from the beginning, these are uncharted waters,” DeMoss said. “We’ve kind of learned as we’ve gone, but I think what superseded this situation is the love and respect that we have for Pat. That supersedes everything.”
Summitt is a devoted and thoughtful person, but that is sometimes lost in the mix of her gruesome practices and harsh halftime speeches.
Still, Summitt takes the time to help anyone who wants to learn about the game.
“Pat is a very grounded person,” DeMoss said. “Always has been. She comes from humble beginnings. Her family is very important to her, and that never changes, that never waivers.”
After moving up the women’s basketball assistant coaching ranks, Henrickson got her first shot as head coach in 1997 at Virginia Tech.
Under her guidance, the Hokies reached at least twenty victories each season while also making five NCAA tournament appearances.
But when Henrickson had a chance to grab somebody from the Summitt coaching tree, she didn’t pass up the opportunity.
Fresh off of her stellar career that included two national titles with the Lady Vols, Kyra Elzy spent one year in 2002 as an administrative assistant under Henrickson at Virginia Tech.
Playing for coach Summitt might be one of the most demanding positions in college basketball, and Elzy felt the brunt of it, being a leader on the court by playing 126 games in four years. She also excelled in the classroom and became the first Tennessee player to earn a master’s degree while still playing.
“She’s very intense,” Elzy said. “She’s a winner. She demands excellence. She’s extremely demanding, but there’s a method to her madness and it obviously pays off.”
Although Elzy had personal success, Henrickson can only remember her talking about her teammates and her coaches.
“Kyra doesn’t talk about how many games they won,” Henrickson said. “She talks about how good they were to her.”
Henrickson picked Elzy again to become a full-time assistant for the Jayhawks when she took the head coaching position in Lawrence.
Among many talents, recruiting is one of Elzy’s specialties. Elzy helped the Jayhawks land its first top 20 signing class in 2007.
“I think you just have to be true to who you are and really be able to be and honest in what they’re going to get from the university,” Elzy said. “Make sure you sell your head coach, but more importantly you need to be persistent and just sell a family atmosphere.”
Elzy has a special connection with Summitt dating back to her playing days. Summitt is someone who pushed Elzy, but always had a loving touch at the end of the day.
“I think what people don’t get to see is the loving and the caring person that she is off the court,” Elzy said. “She really wanted to make sure that we became women ready for the world and also stay humble enough to give back to other people.”
Elzy also feels a great connection to Henrickson, someone who gave her the opportunities to move forward in her career, as well.
Elzy was the associate head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats team that made the Elite Eight this season.
“I will always be grateful and forever indebted to Bonnie,” Elzy said. “She gave me my first chance in the business straight out of college. I had the opportunity to study under and I think I’m a better coach today because of it.”
Being a women’s college basketball coach is a demanding job.
During the season, a head coach might notch a dozen hours of sleep in between watching film, while the athletes grasp a few hours for homework and freedom away from basketball.
Henrickson is one of these coaches, but something she picked up from Summitt long ago was to take the time to write letters.
Throughout her career, Summitt has hand written a note back to every piece of fan mail she’s received until this year. In fact, Henrickson would occasionally write Summitt a note and every time, she would get a handwritten note back.
The personal touch of a hand-written letter is special in an ever-growing technological environment.
That’s why Henrickson has her own set of stationary to do the same thing with many of players and coaches that she writes to throughout the year.
Henrickson wants to show people who coaching is more than about being a great basketball player; it’s about building a family around your team.
“If Pat Summitt has the time to do it, Henrickson said. “Then I have time to do it.”
— Edited by Christine Curtin, originally published Tuesday, April 17, in the University Daily Kansan