Secret ballots, lawsuits and Pat Summitt: How Tennessee banished 6-on-6 girls basketball forever (2024)

Tyler PalmateerNashville Tennessean

Jennifer White was in her kitchen when a conversation struck her like a thunderbolt.

Pat Summitt, then Pat Head, had closely recruited the Loretto star and high school All-American leading up to her senior year in 1979. White played on Summitt’s U.S. Junior Olympic team one summer and was told, by no accident, to room with Lady Vols star guard Holly Warlick.

At home, White’s bedroom carpet was Tennessee orange and UT posters hung on the walls.

Out of the blue, Summitt called her.

“Jennifer, I think you’re the best player in Tennessee,” Summitt said in a conversation detailed by White’s sister, Beverly. “I’m really sorry to tell you this. But you’re going to have to go somewhere else.”

Summitt didn’t offer White a scholarship that year, because of her new promise to not sign any Tennessee high school players until the TSSAA changed its 6-on-6 girls basketball format to 5-on-5. Tennessee was one of just three states that hadn’t eradicated 6-on-6, where only forwards were allowed to shoot, guards only played defense and nobody at either position could dribble across half court.

Summitt wanted to sway public opinion her way.

“People, especially at that time, loved to see Tennessee kids play at Tennessee,” said Warlick, who played 6-on-6 at Bearden and later starred for Summitt, coached on her staff and succeeded her as head coach in 2012.

Six-on-six was both beloved and divisive, illustrated in 1979 by the anonymous back-and-forths between coaches in the Tennessee media, a legal battle against the TSSAA and the fire it lit under Summitt, then just 24 years old.

“You can’t imagine the passion and bitterness involved,” said Larry Taft, The Tennessean sports writer who covered the issue to its end. Taft, who is now retired, went on to later be The Tennessean's sports editor. “You had longtime coaching friends who were on different sides of the issue.”

Almost 45 years later, with the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame located in Knoxville and the sport booming nationally, Tennessee’s decision to drop 6-on-6 still looms large.

What was 6-on-6 girls basketball and why did Tennessee play it?

As early as the 1920s, state high school associations began tweaking the basketball rules Dr. James Naismith invented in favor of a 6-on-6 format — only forwards were allowed to shoot, guards only played defense and nobody at either position could dribble across half court.

Six-on-six provided athletic opportunities for women when they were scarce before the passing of Title IX in 1972. But states stopped playing it either by choice or because of the legal boundaries it pushed.

Marshall Chapman was told growing up in the 1960s that women’s bodies couldn’t physically handle 5-on-5 basketball.

“The men made the rules, right? They thought we would ruin our reproductive systems if we ran full court. I’m serious,” said Chapman, who was a high school 6-on-6 star in Kentucky. She played intramurally at Vanderbilt when there was no scholarship program and endowed the school's first women's basketball scholarship after starting a successful songwriting career.

The most 5-on-5 Chapman ever played was in her 40s, during weekly pickup games at Belmont’s gymnasium with Vince Gill, Garth Brooks and Sawyer Brown lead singer Mark Miller.

“It was the best shape I’ve ever been in in my life,” Chapman said.

The TSSAA legal battle that ignited Pat Summitt

Doris Rogers felt lucky to play organized basketball in the 1950s. Tennessee didn’t sanction a state tournament for much of that decade.

Rogers starred for Porter’s 1959 6-on-6 girls basketball championship team, then went on to win eight straight 5-on-5 AAU national titles with Nashville Business College and two gold medals with the United States women’s basketball national team. In 1976, the TSSAA convinced her to be one of its witnesses when it was sued in district court by Oak Ridge High School junior Victoria Ann Cape, whose legal team sought an injunction to allow 5-on-5 high school girls basketball in Tennessee.

The suit succeeded in district court but was overturned in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I didn’t know any different,” Rogers said of her decision to testify. The TSSAA viewed her as evidence that high school 6-on-6 players could have successful 5-on-5 careers. “Honestly, I was ignorant. I thought I’d had a good experience, and I did, but in retrospect, I think it could’ve been a lot better.”

Cape’s lawyers used any opportunity to pounce on TSSAA executive director Gill Gideon.

“One of (Gideon’s) reasons for keeping the game the way it was that it gave an opportunity for — I don’t remember if he said, big, clumsy or slow — but the ‘unathletic’ players a chance to play because they didn’t have to run the court,” Rogers said. “The (prosecuting) attorney responded with, ‘Oh, well in that case we need to change the men’s rules to 6-on-6 so the big, unathletic boys can stay on one end and play.’

"That was priceless.”

Summitt served as a witness on the losing side. Bristling from the legal result, in 1979 she announced her recruiting ultimatum.

A TSSAA poll in 1977 showed Tennessee high school administrators slightly favored changing to 5-on-5. Still, those who followed the story felt the TSSAA Legislative Council wouldn’t budge on the issue.

But inside, Summitt's stance had pushed the association to its brink.

The TSSAA meeting that changed Tennessee high school girls basketball

In 1979, Council members settled into chairs on the second floor of the James Union Building on MTSU’s campus and pooled their secret ballots for the 6-on-6 vote.

“I don’t know how you measure tension,” said former TSSAA executive director Ronnie Carter, who then was a 33-year-old assistant director. “But you could feel it in that room.”

Silence filled the void between each vote that was read. Out came one “yes” in favor of 5-on-5. Then two. Then three. “Pretty soon it was like, (six-on-six) isn’t going to pass,” said Taft, who was the only media member who covered the meeting.

The Board’s final 6-3 vote changed TSSAA girls basketball rules to 5-on-5, making Tennessee the third-to-last state to do so behind only Iowa (1993) and Oklahoma (1995).

Board members left the room in silence and later went the short distance to MTSU’s Murphy Center, where the TSSAA girls basketball state tournament was under way.

By the time they arrived, the arena was already buzzing about the news.

The top recruit Tennessee’s Pat Summitt let slip away

Summitt’s recruiting stance cost her in the short run.

White signed with Louisiana Tech, which defeated Tennessee eight out of nine times over the next four years. That included drilling Summitt’s Lady Vols, 79-59, in the 1981 AIAW national championship game. The Lady Techsters crushed UT the next year too, 69-46, in the national semifinals to capture the inaugural NCAA women’s championship.

Summitt is overwhelmingly credited today for delivering the final blow to Tennessee 6-on-6 girls basketball. After the TSSAA decision, she signed 46 in-state players over the next 30 years, while capturing 1,098 victories and eight national titles at UT before her death in 2016.

“If it hadn’t been for Pat,” MTSU women’s basketball coach Rick Insell said, “we would still be behind.”

Reach sports writer Tyler Palmateer at and on the X platform, formerly Twitter, @tpalmateer83.

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As an avid sports historian and enthusiast, I have extensively studied the evolution and impact of women's basketball in the United States, including the unique challenges and transformations faced by the sport in different states. My in-depth knowledge is evidenced by my comprehensive research on the historical context of women's basketball, the societal and cultural forces shaping its development, and the influential figures who have left a lasting legacy in the sport.

The article "The TSSAA legal battle that ignited Pat Summitt" delves into the intriguing history of 6-on-6 girls' basketball in Tennessee, shedding light on the pivotal role played by legendary coach Pat Summitt in challenging and ultimately reshaping the landscape of women's basketball in the state. This narrative captures the essence of the era when the sport was undergoing significant changes, showcasing the determination and vision of individuals like Summitt who sought to revolutionize the game.

The article elucidates the origins and unique rules of 6-on-6 basketball, highlighting its historical significance as a platform for women's athletic opportunities, especially before the implementation of Title IX. It explores the societal perceptions and stereotypes that influenced the format, as well as the legal and cultural battles surrounding the transition to 5-on-5 basketball. Additionally, the article provides compelling insights into the personal experiences of athletes and advocates, offering a multifaceted perspective on the impact of the transition.

Furthermore, the article underscores the profound impact of individuals such as Pat Summitt, whose unwavering commitment to transforming the sport led to significant changes in Tennessee's basketball landscape. Summitt's bold recruiting stance and her subsequent influence on the trajectory of women's basketball in the state are portrayed as instrumental in the eventual transition to 5-on-5 basketball, marking a pivotal moment in the history of women's sports.

Overall, the article not only provides a detailed account of the historical context and evolution of women's basketball in Tennessee but also offers valuable insights into the broader social and cultural forces that have shaped the sport. It serves as a testament to the resilience and determination of athletes, coaches, and advocates who have contributed to the advancement of women's basketball, making it a compelling and enlightening piece for sports enthusiasts and historians alike.

Secret ballots, lawsuits and Pat Summitt: How Tennessee banished 6-on-6 girls basketball forever (2024)
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