The year is 1994. I am ten years old and obsessed with sports. This means I watch SportsCenter at least once every morning and have memorized the backs of thousands of baseball cards. I live in Knoxville, four hours away from the closest professional sports team (the Atlanta Braves). However, we had the University of Tennessee, and that meant two things: Volunteer football and Lady Vols basketball.
If you keep up with college football, you know that Volunteer football is mostly mediocre (except for 1999). Lady Vols basketball—at least in the ’90s—was different. If there was a Dallas Cowboys equivalent (in the “America’s team” sense) in women’s college basketball, it was either the Lady Vols or UConn’s Lady Huskies. In 1995, they began a rivalry series that was the biggest thing to happen to women’s college basketball yet. And a big reason that happened was Pat Summitt.All of this underscores Summitt’s commitment to people over performance.
After fighting early onset dementia in the form of Alzheimer’s for five years, Summitt—the Lady Vols head coach from 1972 to 2012—passed away June 28. Or, as we would say in Tennessee, she went home to be with her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. While not a big part of her public persona, Summitt was a devout Christian who did daily devotions and went to church as the basketball schedule allowed. And when she did come, she was never alone. Her pastor, Chris Stephens of Faith Promise said that “[s]he would wave at me when I was preaching and say ‘Come on over here.’ She would introduce coaches, players, friends, people from all around the world that she brought to church.” All in all, he thinks that she brought more people to church than any other member.
For people who didn’t grow up in east Tennessee, it is hard to understand how significant she was as a local public figure. In many ways, she was the face of Tennessee just as much as she was the face of women’s basketball. She was Tennessee born and raised, and so fiercely loyal that when she went into labor on a recruiting visit, she made the pilot fly back to Knoxville so her son would be born in Tennessee. For a small southern state where everybody knows everybody, she was essentially our ambassador to a watching world.
Pat Summitt began coaching at the University of Tennessee in 1974 when she was 22. Women’s college basketball wasn’t technically a sport yet, at least as far as the NCAA was concerned. Once it was, and the NCAA women’s tournament started in 1981, the Summitt-led Lady Vols never failed to make the tournament, almost always advancing at least as far as the Sweet 16. Every Lady Vol who completed eligibility at UT had the opportunity to play in at least one Elite Eight round of the NCAA tournament. More significantly, every single one of them graduated.
We could cite numerous statistics about Pat Summitt’s legacy. When she retired from coaching in 2012, she had the most wins (1,098) in college basketball, men’s or women’s. She had the most Final Four appearances (18) in men’s or women’s (John Wooden holds the men’s record with 12). She is second only to UConn’s Geno Auriemma in NCAA championships (8 to his 11). But she had the most seasons without a losing record and most consecutive postseason tournament appearances. For both of those, the number is 38, which is her entire coaching career.
Numerically, it is not difficult to make the case that Pat Summitt could be the greatest college basketball coach of all time. But if we stick strictly to numbers, she is already in the process of being surpassed. Geno Auriemma has more championships, including the last four consecutive years. He will, along with Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, eventually beat her win record. He already has a better winning percentage, more consecutive wins (90), and most undefeated seasons (6).
But legacies are not measured by numbers alone. When you read tributes to Summitt, words like “trailblazer” and “pioneer” appear repeatedly. Auriemma may outpace her statistically, but he can never do for the game of women’s basketball what Summitt did through the ’80s and ’90s. As he himself said, “She was the defining figure of the game. Lots of people coach the game, but very few get to define the game.” In terms of influence, it is hard to imagine any figure in any sport who is the face of the sport the way Pat Summitt is for women’s basketball.
Summitt was also known as one of the toughest coaches in either men’s or women’s basketball. She was a fierce competitor. Perhaps because of that, she had a reputation for “helping people achieve more than they thought they were capable of accomplishing” as UT athletic director Dave Hart put it. He goes on to say, “Pat was so much more than a Hall of Fame coach; she was a mother, mentor, leader, friend, humanitarian and inspiration to so many. Her legacy will live on through the countless people she touched throughout her career.” Or, in the words of Summitt’s own personal philosophy “you win in life with people.”
A big way Summitt did that was through her influence on a generation of young women. If you came to play basketball at Tennessee, you learned it was okay to be competitive in sports. You also went to class, and you had to sit in the first three rows when you did. You played basketball at the highest level while being treated with dignity and respect, but you were asked to go beyond what you thought was your best. You graduated and because of that, and your time with Summitt, the rest of your life would never be the same.
As a single example, consider the text of a handwritten note Pat Summitt sent to Candace Parker, former Lady Vol and current WNBA star:
I enjoyed watching you play again. Makes me want very badly to coach you and see you on the court with the Lady Vols. You truly are a “special athlete” and its clear to me that you love the game. You will be an impact player wherever you go. If you come to Tennessee, you will also have thousands of fans watch you every time you step on the court. Our fans would love your game.
Candace, I think I could help you on and off the court. I would do my best to help you develop as a player, person, and student. We could have lots of fun in the process. Think about it. I want to be your coach! Pat Summitt
Parker tweeted “You held true to your promises…and some. Thank you Coach for always being the perfect role model I love you. #RIP”
Others saw a fiery coach who wanted to win but who also wanted to do what was best for the sport as a whole. They saw someone agree to a non-conference rivalry that would risk a loss every year but would be nationally televised. They saw a competitor that added other non-conference series to the schedule after a loss rather than avoiding that program in future years.
All of this underscores Summitt’s commitment to people over performance. Her numerical legacy may diminish over time. But the influence she had over a generation of young girls and anyone paying attention over the last forty-plus years will continue to grow. While not a prominent feature, her faith certainly played a role. As she reportedly told her biographer Sally Jenkins, “I know that everything I’ve been given came as gifts from God, and he has a way of reminding us, ‘This is my work.'” Summitt went on to say, “God’s plan is a mystery to me. I just know that I was given certain work to do…”
That work started in obscurity when she was 22, coaching a team that wasn’t playing a recognized sport. She was barely older than her players and had to wash their uniforms as well as drive the bus. There weren’t always locker rooms on road games, and sleeping on mats in an opposing team’s gym the night before wasn’t uncommon. It serves as a good reminder that God gives each of us work to do, and for many, it may seem utterly mundane. But, every job is an opportunity to influence others and be caught up into what God is doing in the world. Pat Summitt saw that and proceeded not only to win every season on the court, but to “win” with people by changing the lives of one team at a time. In doing so, she changed the landscape of women’s sports and has served as an inspiring role model for more people than she could ever have known.