Today, the world of college basketball mourns the loss of an icon. Pat Summitt, longtime coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team (the “Lady Vols”), passed away earlier today of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 64. Summitt coached the lady’s basketball team at UT from 1974-2012. In 38 years she never had a losing season. She won 1,098 games, the most by any college basketball coach, male or female, and her teams won eight national championships and appeared in 18 “Final Fours.”
In addition, she won an Olympic silver medal in 1976 as a player and coached the women’s team to a gold medal in 1984. In 2009 the Sporting News ranked her # 11 on its list of the 50 Greatest Coaches of All Time (all sports, both male and female), the only female coach on the list. Moreover, she has won numerous coaching awards, such as the Naismith Basketball Coach of the Century, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Arthur Ashe Courage Award (at the 2012 “Espys”), and many others too numerous to mention.
Patricia Sue Head was born on June 14, 1952 in Clarksville, TN. She had two older brothers and one sister. She grew up playing sports with (and against) them. That was probably where she honed her intense competitive nature. Pat was a standout basketball player, but her local high school did not have a lady’s basketball team. Consequently, her family moved to an area where she could play – Cheatham County. In those days, girls’ high school basketball in Tennessee was played the old-fashioned way. You either played offense or defense. A player could not cross half-court. Also, there were no athletic college scholarships for women. Head paid to play at UT. She was so accomplished that she made all-America and co-captained the 1976 women’s Olympic basketball team that won the aforementioned silver medal.
There was no women’s pro league in those days, so after graduation it was on to coaching. In 1974 she became a graduate assistant at UT, but after the head coach suddenly and unexpectedly quit the school needed a new head coach exigently. Pat was available and, thus, was hired at the tender age of 22. Of such serendipity is history often made. It was not exactly a dream job. It included a lot more than coaching. Summitt often said her ancillary duties included washing the uniforms and driving the team van. Moreover, on road trips, the accommodations were not exactly deluxe. The night before one game, the team had to sleep on the floor of the home team’s gym in sleeping bags.
Summitt was an aggressive recruiter and a very demanding coach. One story is that while nine months’ pregnant with her son, Tyler, she, nevertheless, went on a recruiting visit. As told by the player, who ended up going to UT, she and her parents were concerned Summitt was going to deliver the baby right there in her living room, but they were extremely impressed by her tenacity and dedication to show up in the first place. As a coach, she demanded the best, and when she felt a player wasn’t giving it, she would fix her with an “icy stare” that would thoroughly intimidate and produce the desired result. On the other hand, she also provided a role model and developed countless teenage girls into young women. She was so successful and highly respected that in 1997 and 2001 the school extended her the singular honor of asking her if she would like to coach the men’s team.
Summitt was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2011. Nevertheless, she coached through the 2011-2012 season, albeit in a reduced role. She passed away on June 28.
Summitt no longer holds the record for most championships. Her mark has been superseded by UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who has won eleven. But that has not diminished her legacy. She was about more than wins and titles. The conventional wisdom is that she was a women’s basketball coaching pioneer, and one of the greatest coaches ever, not just women’s basketball coaches, but coaches period. Tributes have been pouring in from her former players and assistant coaches. Her legacy is enhanced further by the fact no less than 25 of her former players and assistant coaches, plus her son, have become coaches and/or basketball administrators in their own right. In my opinion, that is her most enduring legacy of all.