Summitt is the greatest coach of our era

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Tennessee women's coach Pat Summitt talks to her

Tennessee women's coach Pat Summitt talks to her team as it battles DePaul at Madison Square Garden. (Dec. 11, 2011) Photo Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

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Barbara Barker Newsday sports writer Barbara Barker

Barbara Barker is an award-winning sports features writer and columnist who has covered sports in New York for

In 1974, two years after President Richard Nixon signed a groundbreaking law known as Title IX, Pat Summitt became the head coach at the University of Tennessee.

A 22-year-old graduate assistant with the women's basketball program at the time, Summitt was given the job because the coach suddenly had quit and there was no one else to take it. She earned a salary of $250 a month and her coaching duties included driving the team van and washing the players' uniforms, which had been purchased with the profits from a doughnut sale.

Thirty-eight years later, Summitt is stepping down from that head-coaching position with a $1-million bonus after building her Lady Vols into a national brand and helping transform her sport into one that outranks all but men's basketball and football in college popularity.

This is why Summitt is the greatest college coach of our time. No one -- male or female -- has had a greater impact on a sport, a university and a culture than Summit has had. Not John Wooden. Not Mike Krzyzewski. Not Bobby Bowden. Not Bear Bryant. Not Joe Paterno.

It's not just that Summitt has won more basketball games than any other coach. It's not just her consistency on the big stage (her teams have been to the NCAA Tournament in every year of its existence and won it eight times). It's the fact that she did all this in the time and place that she did it.

Summitt, who is stepping down less than a year after announcing that she suffers from early-onset Alzheimer's disease, started her career when there was very little respect for female athletes.

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It's almost impossible for young girls today to fathom the lack of opportunity that existed for their counterparts four decades ago. My daughter can choose from close to a dozen modified sports in her middle school. Forty years ago, she would have been lucky if her middle school had any, other than cheerleading.

According to the National Federation of High School Associations, 294,015 girls participated in high school sports in 1971-72, the last pre-Title IX school year. Compare that with last school year, 2010-11, when 3,386,965 girls participated.

No, people didn't think much of female athletes when Summitt took her job, especially in a conservative state like Tennessee where they still insist on differentiating their women's teams by calling them Lady Vols. But Summitt taught her players from the very start that it didn't matter what others thought about them. It didn't matter that they had inferior equipment, that on some road trips they were forced to bring sleeping bags and blankets so they could bunk on the floor of another team's gym. What mattered is what they thought of themselves.

Summitt taught her players that if they acted, worked and played like champions, the world eventually would catch up and see them that way.

Earlier this year, I went to Knoxville, Tenn., to write a story on how Summitt was coping with her Alzheimer's. And what struck me more than anything was just how many lives Summitt has touched, how many of her former players and colleagues list her as the most important force in their lives.

One of those players was longtime assistant Holly Warlick, who is taking over for Summitt. Warlick talked about what a great ambassador for the game Summitt is, how several generations of young players had grown up watching her cut down the net at the end of an NCAA championship game.

"Pat is all about what's good for the game," Warlick said.

What's good for the game now is Summitt stepping aside. After what essentially was a yearlong farewell tour, she has made the decision to hand over the reins to Warlick.

Alzheimer's is an insidious disease, one that eventually will rob Summitt of the memory of everything she has accomplished. What it can't take away, however, are the memories generations of fans have of her.

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