There are a handful of people in any profession whose importance far surpasses their job title, and legendary basketball coach Pat Summitt, who died this week at 64, is certainly one of those people.
The case can be made that when it comes to women’s basketball, NO one, be- fore or after, has been as influential. That impact extends far beyond her amazing statistics of eight national championships, 1,098 career victories, seven NCAA coach of the year awards, and no losing records in 38 years as a head coach. There’s also a playing career that includes a 1976 silver medal as a member of the Olympic basketball team. When Summitt began her coaching career in 1974 at the University of Tennessee, it was in the pre-Title IX era. She was an inexperienced 22-year-old who initially had been offered an assistant coaching job. But the head coach decided to take a sabbatical from coaching, so UT offered her the position as an afterthought.
During those early days, Summitt sometimes doubled as the bus driver on road trips, and even pulled triple duty washing the uniforms. But under her leadership, Summitt made the Lady Vols nationally relevant, and helped elevate women’s basketball in the eyes of many fans. It’s easy to forget today that there was a time in the state of Tennessee when high school girls didn’t even play full-court basketball. Summitt would regularly have her teams scrimmage against men to enhance their competitive skills. She was demanding, but never cruel or insensitive. She also recruited Black players almost from the onset, doing it at a school whose prior track record in that regard was dubious, at best.
That is something which she did not out of any agenda other than wanting the best players and the best team. “I remember nights I was driving the van and I’m about to go to sleep, and I’d just roll down the window and stick my head out,” Summitt told “Good Morning America’s” Robin Roberts during a lengthy interview segment in 2011. She credited her background growing up on a dairy farm in Henrietta, Tennessee as vital to her personality as a coach. “When you grow up on a dairy farm, cows don’t take a day off. So you work every day and my dad always said, ‘No one can outwork you.” Summitt learned basketball on that farm, playing with three older brothers and using a hoop that her father put up in the hay barn. The Summitt “glare,” a fixed stare that her players swore could melt anything solid, would be fixed on those who didn’t run a play to her satisfaction. Yet, her players were all united in their love for her.
Sadly, she stepped down as UT’s coach in 2012, one year after announcing her diagnosis of early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. She remained connected to the program as head coach emeritus. Summitt also was awarded both the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House and the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs in 2012.
While Summitt isn’t solely responsible for Title IX, or the formation of the WNBA, nor the current status women’s college basketball enjoys in terms of national attention and exposure, it is certainly fair to say she played a big role in all those things happening. Others like Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma may eclipse her statistical marks, but he’ll never top her place among not just basketball and sports’ greatest coaches, but as one of this nation’s most significant people period.