There was a time when you could not find a game of women’s basketball on American television, even one being played for a championship. Pat Summitt helped to change that.
There was a time when you could attend a basketball game played by women and sit anyplace in the house — empty seats, no waiting — a time when you could not name a coach of women’s basketball, no matter how famous the men’s coaches had become. Pat Summitt helped to change that.
Maybe her name wasn’t known in every household on Earth, and maybe her face wasn’t familiar in all four corners of the United States, but if a young girl’s goal today is to grow up to be a basketball player or coach, she in some way has Pat Summitt to thank.
Before she died Tuesday in a Knoxville, Tennessee, senior-living center at the too-young age of 64, nearly five years after disclosing a diagnosis of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, the greatest head coach in the annals of women’s basketball had won eight national championships and more than a thousand games with the University of Tennessee’s Lady Volunteers.
Of all the gym joints in all the world, the University of Tennessee’s alumni are thankful she walked into theirs.
The name Pat Summitt is now “synonymous with Tennessee,” is how the school’s athletic director, Dave Hart, aptly put it after the revered coach’s death.
“Everyone in the state was proud to have her as an ambassador,” seconded a prominent Volunteer athlete of yesteryear, football’s Peyton Manning.
She was a farmer’s daughter from Clarksville, a town of 11,000 or so in the northwest part of the state. Austin Peay practiced law there and became governor, and Robert Penn Warren went to school there before authoring “All the King’s Men,” and a young Jimi Hendrix played guitar in a band there. But as native daughters go, the one who would become a colossus of college basketball (and a statue at the state university) was likely the vicinity’s star of stars.
Her surname in her youth was Head, long before any “head coach” wisecracks could commence, and she was “Trish” to her girlhood friends, not Pat until she enrolled at the University of Tennessee’s offshoot branch in Martin and found herself identified that way.
Pat Head was so well thought of, the more renowned Tennessee campus in Knoxville made her its head coach at the tender age of 22. It was already obvious this was a student of the game who knew how to teach it.
In an impatient world, Tennessee didn’t panic when no national championships came in the coach’s first dozen seasons. Perhaps that was due in part to women’s basketball of the 1970s flying under the radar, largely unobserved, while football and men’s basketball thrived.
Yet from the very beginning, her Lady Vols kept winning. Pat Head Summitt’s teams did not have losing records during her 38 seasons in charge. Her first NCAA national title came in 1987, three years after coaching Team USA to an Olympic gold medal.
A jam-packed arena in Knoxville witnessed one court queen after another — the play of amazing players like Chamique Holdsclaw, Daedra Charles, Nikki McCray, Tamika Catchings and so many more. When practically every women’s coach in the country came to the Chicago area to try to persuade Candace Parker to come their way, she chose Tennessee for two reasons: A shot at a championship and a chance to play for Pat Summitt.
The 1,000th victory of her coaching career came on February 5, 2009, a pretty easy 30-point win over Georgia, and who knows how much longer the winning could have continued? But after the following season, not yet 60, there were lapses in memory and a general unease that led Summitt to visit the Mayo Clinic to undergo tests. It was there the early dementia was found.
Summitt’s son, Tyler, who also became a coach, said he heard “why me?” from his mother once or twice, understandably. Then she steeled herself to the task at hand, much as she did in preparation for a big game. Upon announcing her diagnosis in August 2011, the first thing Pat Summitt made clear to everybody was this: “There’s not going to be any pity party. I’ll make sure of that.”
Quite a debate could be held over which men’s basketball coach — John Wooden? Red Auerbach? Mike Krzyzewski? Phil Jackson? — deserves to be mentioned first as the best there ever was. Such a debate about women’s basketball would be short.
Oh, sure, we still have Geno Auriemma of Connecticut and his 11 NCAA championships, but even he must admit that Pat Summitt was a ground-breaker, a difference-maker, a coach who increased the popularity and importance of women’s basketball by leaps and bounds.
Forty-five of her former players have become basketball coaches themselves. They owe her a lot. There will be no pity party for Pat Summitt today, though. There will be nothing but praise and celebration for having known this wondrous woman at all.