By WAYNE PHILLIPS
Sports Editor Emeritus
Little did Gail Dobson Ingram know when she saw a flyer posted around campus asking for girls to try out for the University of Tennessee women's basketball team that she would be part of the beginning of an amazing history.
Likewise, she didn't realize that a lady named Pat Head, a 22-year-old who Ingram had played against, and defeated, just a couple of years earlier while Ingram was at UT and Head was at UT-Martin, would become her head coach during the 1974-75 senior year for the "Volettes," as they were called in those days.
Ingram was a part of Pat Head's first UT team. She witnessed her coach, who would become Pat Summitt in 1980, lose the first game she coached - an 84-83 setback to Mercer - and she was on the floor when Pat won her first game, a 69-32 win over Middle Tennessee State.
Since that first win in January of 1975, there followed an astounding 1,097 more victories before her health went bad and she retired last year, making Summitt the winningest basketball coach in history and the "Volettes," later known as the Lady Vols, as eight-time NCAA champions of women's hoops.
Gail Dobson was a standout athlete for Coach Claude Wallin at South Greene High School, where she graduated in 1971, only a few years after the school was formed by consolidation of St. James and Camp Creek in 1965-1966. She averaged 22.6 points per game her senior year for the Rebels, and her 1971 team was the first from the relatively new school to make a trip to the state tournament, a trip that would become an almost regular occurrence over the next three decades.
"I was offered a scholarship to play basketball at Belmont (in Nashville), but I didn't want to go there," she said. "So I went to UT and thought my basketball days were over."
She didn't even know UT had a women's basketball team until she saw a flyer posted around campus asking for girls to try out for the team. She tried out for Coach Margaret Hutson's squad, made the team, and the rest is history, so they say.
"My freshman year we only played about 10 games, a limited schedule," she said. "We played a few more than that my sophomore year, then my junior year under Coach Hutson went 22-2 and had a real good team."
That would be Hutson's final year as coach as Pat Head, fresh from an outstanding career at Martin where she was an All-American player, would become head coach as a 22-year-old after Hutson suddenly resigned the position.
This was during the pre-Title IX years, and there were no scholarships available for women's basketball at Tennessee, so all the players on the 1974-75 team were from Tennessee.
"I had played against Pat during my sophomore year," Ingram recalls. "We played them in the state tournament and beat them. I scored the points to send the game into overtime and we eventually won. We beat Pat. But she was an outstanding player."
Although the new coach was about the same age as her four seniors, Ingram recalls something which immediately made an impression on her.
"She called a meeting with the four seniors on the team and she listened to us when we told her of our strengths and weaknesses," Ingram said. "She was only a year older than me, but she was my coach."
Pat Summitt has always been known a strict taskmaster, with that icy stare toward a player who wasn't performing as expected or toward a referee who she felt was not getting the job done.
But Ingram said that first year was not too bad.
"I think that first year she was just feeling her way," Ingram said. "She wasn't that rough on us. But from what I heard, the second season was much tougher. The trash cans were situated around the practice floor (for players to spill their most recent meal). But Pat cared for her players. She was obviously a great motivator. She made her players not to want to let her down."
At 5-10, Dobson was one of the tallest Volettes, and she was moved to the center position under Coach Head after playing a forward her junior year, when she said she thought she played the best basketball of her career.
Tennessee high school basketball rules at the time had the old 6-on-6 style, with three forwards on one side of the floor and three guards on the other. Gail was a forward at South Greene, so her adjustment to the full-court game was probably not as difficult as the transition would have been for a guard in the 6-on-6 game. Guards did not shoot the ball. They only defended the other team's forwards.
"Trying to explain the rules to people who never saw a 6-on-6 game is really difficult," Ingram laughs. "When you tell them that after a bucket, the other team put the ball in play at center court, they just look at you like 'What?'"
Although she felt she played her best basketball as a junior, which she credited to working out in the weight room for the first time in her life, she finished her UT career in grand style.
According to the UT record books, she scored 39 points in a game against Union in February of 1975. She had 34 points in another game against Union, and scored 32 in a contest against Appalachian State.
"I was happy I finished up my career well," she said. "The last tournament I played in I scored like 30 points and hit 12-of-12 free throws, and I made 13-of-13 free throws in another tourney game. So I do remember that."
Unfortunately for Ingram and her coach, the UT women did not advance to the AIAW Tournament after finishing with a 16-8 record. The AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) was the women's governing group until the NCAA took over.
And as all the former Lady Vols will attest, "once a Lady Vol, always a Lady Vol."
"Tennessee has kept us all involved over the years, with alumni games and gatherings," Ingram said. "I feel I could call Coach Summitt anytime. I saw her in the airport a few years ago and she immediately called my name and gave me a hug. With as many players as she's coached over the years, I don't know how she does that. Maybe being on her first team helps."
After graduating from UT in 1975, she went to graduate school for a year, then returned to Greene County and began a teaching career at Doak in 1976-77. But basketball wasn't over for her, as she was contacted by Women's Basketball League's Houston Angels, who drafted her to play in the fledgling league.
"I didn't get to play too much, but we won the championship, and I've got the ring to prove it," she smiled as she lifted the box containing the impressive souvenir from her office deask.
She only played once year in the WBL, but it continued a string of "firsts" for Gail Dobson Ingram. She played on DeBusk Elementary's very first girls team; she was on the first South Greene team to make it to the state tournament; and she was on Pat Summitt's very first UT team.
"Those are all things of which I am very proud," she said.
Yet another "first" was her appearance at the state tournament as South Greene's first representative to the TSSAA tennis event.
Her father, the late Wayne Dobson, was a long-time educator in the county school system and was recognized as one of the premier senior tennis players in the country. He garnered an impressive array of championship trophies from across the south, and he would later be honored for his achievements as a member of the Northeast Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.
"After God, my dad has been the most influence in my life," she said. "He encouraged me to play sports, both tennis and basketball. But he never pushed me. We practiced hard, and he would be able to get me to practice when I didn't want to, but it wasn't pushing."
Her father was tennis coach at South Greene during Gail's senior season when she qualified for the state tournament.
After her short WBL career, Gail returned to Greene County and taught at Camp Creek School for a year, then left education to be an activities director at a local nursing home. She married Jeff Ingram in 1983, then went to work at Towering Oaks Christian School, and was there until 2000 when she and Jeff moved to Knoxville where Jeff began a business operation.
Gail and Jeff were in Knoxville from 2000-2009 until they returned to Greene County, and Gail went back to work at Towering Oaks, where she remains today as principal. She has coached the Towering Oaks basketball teams over the years and truly enjoys that task.
Like everyone who knows Pat Summitt, Gail was not surprised how the veteran coach faced the challenge after being diagnosed with early-onset dementia.
"The last time I was around Pat was last season when we went to Knoxville to see her," Gail said. "Chamique Holtsclaw had contacted all former players and asked them to write a letter to put in a book for Pat. I was happy to do that. All the players got together and presented the book to her last season. We had lunch together and got to speak with Pat and it was special.
"But she let us know real quick that 'this is not a pity party,'" Ingram said.
To be known as a member of Pat Summitt's very first team at UT is special and something that Gail Dobson Ingram will carry with her the rest of her life.
"God has really blessed me," she said.