Pat Summitt delivered as a head coach and as a cultural figure. The winningest coach in the history of men’s and women’s Division I basketball was hired by the University of Tennessee as a 22-year-old in 1974. Her Lady Volunteers won eight national titles and 1,098 games during the next 38 years. Her teams made history with 31 consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
Sports commentators are remembering how she stiffened the spine of women’s sports. Famous for her steely glare on the sideline, Summitt was feared, revered and iconic. She met her Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis five years ago in characteristic fashion. Her son said she fought with “fierce determination just as she did with every opponent she ever faced.”
Summitt died today at 64.
Her legacy in women’s basketball can be gauged by the 78 Summitt players who were coaching basketball or working in front offices of college or professional women’s basketball when she retired in 2012. Competitiveness and hard work were the traits she demonstrated during her career, and they are the lessons she taught her teams.
The legends about Summitt grew up around those characteristics. She pounded the floor during games until she flattened the gold rings on her right hand. She was tough with referees as well as players. She was expecting the birth of her son, Tyler, when she made a recruiting visit to Pennsylvania in 1990. Her water broke, she finished the visit, and she told pilots on her flight home to keep going so that her son could be born in Tennessee.
Summitt received a lot of attention for her accomplishments in women’s basketball. She was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000.
The recognition swelled after her diagnosis. The court at Thompson Boling Arena, where the Lady Vols and Vols play, was christened “The Summitt.” President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in April 2012. An ESPN documentary “Pat XO” in July 2013 told her story. The University of Tennessee dedicated a statue and the Pat Summitt Plaza in November 2013.
The head coach stayed on the job for a year after her Alzheimer’s forced her retirement. The Lady Vols won their 16th SEC Championship under her leadership before she left. Then Summitt took up the fight against her new opponent. Summitt and her son formed the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund in November 2011 to raise money to for Alzheimer’s research.
Summitt often spoke about growing up in a family with three older brothers and a father who expected her to work alongside them on the family farm in Tennessee. He reminded his children that “cows don’t take a day off,” and Summitt took that work ethic to her career. Friends saw her drive as a lifelong crusade to prove herself to her father.
Later in her career, Summitt said she realized her success also came from recognizing her players as complicated women. On social media in her final days, players and fans spoke about their love for her. Nearly 20 former Lady Vols, including WNBA stars and coaches, came to Knoxville to say farewell.
Former Lady Vol and WNBA star Tamika Catchings in 2013 beautifully described Summitt’s ultimate gift to her players. “We learned about what it takes to be a leader, what it takes to be a great woman, what it takes to be a great lady, what it takes to have character, what it takes to have poise,” said Catchings.
Image Courtesy of Sports & Entertainment Nashville