When Pat Summitt announced, in the summer of 2011, that she had dementia, there were hardly any calls for her resignation. In an era when a brief losing streak or press conference slip-up puts a coach on the hot seat, the silence spoke to the respect for the Tennessee coaching legend. Summitt did delegate many of her duties that year before stepping down at the end of the season. But it wasn’t because of any outside pressure. The disease that ended her coaching career too soon ended her life prematurely on Tuesday. She was 64.
At the White House in 1991, where Summitt and the Lady Volunteers were being honored for winning their third of what would be eight national championships, President George H.W. Bush remarked, “She’s fast becoming the most famous legend to come out of Tennessee since Davy Crockett.” He applauded the program not just for its stellar play on the court, but its impressive graduation rate. Every player who completed eligibility under Summitt graduated.
High school coaching legend Morgan Wootten was at the White House ceremony that day and was inducted into basketball’s Hall of Fame in 2000, the same year as Summitt. “She really cared deeply about her players,” Wootten said by phone Tuesday. “She used to say, ‘I don’t want basketball to use them. They should use basketball to become better people.’ She loved to win, but she wanted to make an impact on the young ladies she coached. I personally think what she did for women’s basketball will never be equaled.”
Summitt’s 1,098 wins are the most for any coach, male or female, in college basketball history. She posted a winning percentage of .841. Summitt’s Vols reached the Final Four 18 times. She was named national Coach of the Year seven times.
Her stare alone could intimidate a referee, yet Wootten remembers a “very warm, very approachable” woman who was “a joy to be around.” Hearing her husband talk about Summitt, Kathy Wootten can’t help but recall a delightful bike ride with Summitt many years ago after a coaching clinic.
When Nikki McCray-Penson, now an assistant coach at South Carolina, went from the Final Four to a tour with the U.S. national team, she was constantly in touch with her college coach for advice. The U.S. women were bigger and stronger, but Summitt eased her concerns and convinced her she belonged. Carla McGhee, another member of that national team, used to think she was being punished for having to deal with Summitt and Olympic coach Tara VanDerveer, who was equally demanding. “Now I realize I’m blessed to have been around such greatness.”
I only met Summitt once, at the Maggie Dixon Classic at Madison Square Garden in December 2011, during her final season. When she was announced the winner of the tournament’s Courage Award, the entire arena gave her a standing ovation. This included the coaches and players on the court, who broke from their in-game huddles to acknowledge Summitt. “If I see her, I’m going to hug her,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said after the game. “I hugged her and told her I loved her.” There were plenty of “We Back Pat” shirts in the arena that day, as there were throughout that season. “We are playing for everyone with [Alzheimer’s] disease,” Tennessee forward Glory Johnson said that afternoon. Summitt accepted her award and signed autographs for all who approached her.
Summitt ‘a true pioneer’
The outpouring of support in the wake of her death has been overwhelming and yet unsurprising. The United States Basketball Writers Association released a statement that read, in part, “Instead of using the world as a place to live in, Summitt used it as a giant canvas to create change, open minds and break through barriers. With an enthusiasm for life, Summitt was a courageous pioneer who made a difference.”
New York Liberty President Isiah Thomas, who went into the Hall of Fame with Summitt, said this in a statement provided to Excelle Sports: “Pat Summitt was a true pioneer; her contributions to the game of basketball are unrivaled. Her impact was felt at every level of the sport, not just the women’s game. We all know Pat as an amazing coach, but her influence was even greater off the court.” USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo said Summitt will “undoubtedly be remembered as one of the greatest coaches of all time.”
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, a one-time bitter rival of Summitt’s, said, “The history of women’s basketball before Tennessee and before Pat Summitt was kind of checkered because there wasn’t a lot of media attention. There wasn’t a lot of interest in the game. There wasn’t a lot of support from universities…There was no competition among coaches; there was only Pat Summitt. Other people took their turn at getting their 15 minutes of fame, but when people talked about women’s college basketball in America, it was Pat Summitt and Tennessee.”
McGhee, who won a national championships at Tennessee as a freshman in 1987 and again in ’89, said former Vols could count on a call from Summitt if they screwed up off the court, no matter their graduation year. “She could kick you in the rear but love you to death,” McGhee said. From accountability to confidence to discipline, McGhee learned countless life lessons from her college coach. “Today is a sad day, but it’s also happy because she’s now at peace. She’s coaching a different team now. They needed her up there.”
Andrew Kahn is a freelance writer who covers women’s basketball and other sports. He has written for The Wall Street Journal and Newsday, among others. Find more of his writing at andrewjkahn.com, email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.