As she was conducting a basketball clinic, Pat Summitt once recalled, a male coach raised his hand to ask if she had any advice about “coaching women.” Freezing him with what she described as her trademark “death-ray stare,” Summitt replied: “Don’t worry about coaching ‘women.’ Just go home and coach ‘basketball.’ ”
For 38 years at the University of Tennessee, Summitt coached basketball as well as anybody on the planet, man or woman. She retired following the 2011-12 season because of early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, but when she died Tuesday at age 64 as a result of dementia, her 1,098-208 record still stood as the highest win total of any Division I coach regardless of gender. Her eight NCAA titles rank behind only the 11 women’s titles won by Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and the 10 men’s titles won by UCLA coach John Wooden.
Her son, Tyler Summitt, issued a statement Tuesday morning saying his mother died peacefully at Sherrill Hill Senior Living in Knoxville surrounded by those who loved her most.
“Since 2011, my mother has battled her toughest opponent, early onset dementia, ‘Alzheimer’s Type,’ and she did so with bravely fierce determination just as she did with every opponent she ever faced,” Tyler Summitt said. “Even though it’s incredibly difficult to come to terms that she is no longer with us, we can all find peace in knowing she no longer carries the heavy burden of this disease.”
When Summitt was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, she was recognized as Coach of the Century. While her accomplishments were not strictly defined by her gender, from a historical perspective, Summitt was a seminal figure in terms of the role she played in advancing the cause of gender equality in athletics through the sheer dint of her accomplishments over the course of her remarkable playing and coaching career.
Born on June 14, 1952 in Clarksville, Tennessee, as Patricia Sue Head, her basketball talent prompted her family to move to Henrietta, Tennessee, which had a high school girls team that Clarksville lacked. Summitt’s college career at the University of Tennessee-Martin began in 1970, two years before the passage of Title IX legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender in any federally funded education program or activity.
Hired as a graduate assistant coach in 1974 at Tennessee, Summitt took over the program when the head coach suddenly quit. She got through that initial season with a 16-8 record, which was the first of 38 straight winning seasons. At the same time, she also played on the 1975 Pan Am Games gold- medal team and became co-captain of the first U.S. women’s national team that took the silver medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, which was the first women’s Olympic basketball tournament. In 1984, she coached the U.S. women’s Olympic team to their first gold at the Los Angeles Games.
By that time, she had married R.B. Summitt in 1980 (they divorced in 2007) and was in the process of building the Lady Vols into a national powerhouse. Her teams reached the AIAW national tournament four times before the NCAA officially recognized women’s basketball in 1981-82, when Tennessee made the first of 31 straight NCAA appearances before Summitt retired, including 18 trips to the Final Four and titles in 1987, 1989, 1991, 1996-98, 2007 and 2008. Her 1998 NCAA champions went 39-0, and she recorded her 880th career win during the 2004-05 season to pass North Carolina’s Dean Smith as the winningest Division I coach of all-time.
Describing her philosophy for success, Summitt said: “Here’s how I’m going to beat you. I’m going to outwork you. That’s it. That’s all there is to it.”
That sense of drive and determination is reflected by the oft-told story of the birth in 1990 of her only child, Tyler. Summitt was on a recruiting trip to Pennsylvania when her water broke. She completed the visit, then caught a flight home, telling the pilot not to land until he reached Tennessee, where she wanted her son to be born.
That fierce sense of state pride was appreciated by University of Tennessee officials, who twice asked her to consider coaching the men’s team in 1997 and 2001. But she was committed to her program, which produced 32 Southeastern Conference titles, 34 WNBA draft picks and 21 All-Americans, including such greats as Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker. Perhaps most notably, every player who completed her eligibility graduated.
Over the years, Summitt’s rivalry with Auriemma grew particularly intense. The Huskies had a 13-9 record against Summitt’s teams, including 4-0 in NCAA title games, but the Lady Vols eliminated UConn on the way to titles in 1996 and 1997.
When the subject of the numbers she amassed came up, Summitt said it was the players who mattered far more to her. In one of three books she authored with Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, Summitt said: “I remember every single player — every single one — who wore the Tennessee orange, a shade that our rivals hate, a bold, aggravating color that you usually can find on a roadside work crew, ‘or in a correctional institution,’ as my friend [former Old Dominion coach] Wendy Larry jokes.
“But to us, the color is a flag of pride because it identifies us as Lady Vols, and therefore, as women of an unmistakable type — fighters. I remember how many of them fought for a better life for themselves. I just met them halfway.”
When it was announced in August 2011 that Summitt was suffering from early onset dementia, the news came as a shock. But Summitt was determined to coach one more season. Shrugging off her misfortune, Summitt said, “There’s not going to be any pity party. I’ll make sure of that.”
Her coaching career ended with a loss in the Elite Eight to eventual undefeated national champion Baylor. In 2012, Summitt received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama and the Arthur Ashe Courage award from ESPN. She and son Tyler then founded the Pat Summitt Foundation to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.
Summitt described her experience with dementia to Jenkins in a moving passage from “Sum It Up,” their final book together. “My short-term factual memory can be like water; events are a brief disturbance on the surface and then it closes back up again, as if nothing ever touched it,” Summitt said. “But it’s a strange fact that my long-term memory remains strong, perhaps because it recorded events when my mind was unaffected.
“My emotional memory is intact, too, perhaps because feelings are recorded and stored in a different place than facts. The things that happened deeper in the past and deeper in the breast are still there for me under the water.”
The ripple effect of Summit’s life and career had a profound impact on the game of basketball and the development of women’s athletics.
Pat Summitt’s remarkable numbers as Tennessee women’s basketball coach:
Consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament
Graduation percentage for players who completed their eligibility at Tennessee.
Coached the U.S. women’s national team to gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, in her first year of eligibility.
Inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in the 1999 inaugural class.
Named 2011 Sports Illustrated Sportswoman of the Year (along with Sportsman of the Year, Duke men’s coach Mike Krzyzewski).
Named Naismith College Coach of the Year five times
Source: University of Tennessee