It was the most inauspicious of beginnings.
In 1974, the University of Tennessee hired a 22-year-old graduate assistant to coach its women’s basketball team. She was given the job because no one else wanted it. Pat Summitt earned a salary of $250 a month and her coaching duties included washing the players’ uniforms, driving the team bus and organizing doughnut sales to help pay for travel.
Over the next four decades, no one would do more than Summitt to raise the profile of women’s college basketball, taking it from a niche sport to one that drew 2,972,000 viewers for the 2016 championship game between Syracuse and Connecticut.
With her death on Tuesday at age 64 from complications from early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, the world has not just lost a great basketball coach but a pivotal figure in women’s drive for equality in both sports and the world beyond.
No college coach, male or female, has had a greater impact on sport and culture than Summitt. And to me, that is how greatness should be measured. Summitt is the greatest college coach of her time. Not John Wooden. Not Mike Krzyzewski. Not Bobby Bowden. Not Geno Auriemma, whose rivalry with Summitt played a big role in raising the profile of the women’s game.
It’s not just that Summitt won eight national titles in her 38 seasons and recorded 1,098 victories, the most in Division I college basketball history for a men’s or women’s coach. It’s that she did all this in a pivotal time and place.
When Summitt played basketball at the University of Tennessee-Martin in the early 1970s, there were no basketball scholarships, meaning that her parents had to pay her way to school though her older brothers all got scholarships. While she was playing, in 1972, President Richard Nixon signed Title IX, but it would take years for the impact of the legislation to lead to equal opportunity for girls and women in sports.
When Summitt took over the University of Tennessee team, the school’s total yearly budget for six women’s sports was $5,000. The state of Tennessee, where all her players then came from, was still playing six-on-six basketball and the team averaged 50 spectators per game.
The lack of respect accorded female athletes 40 years ago is almost impossible for young girls playing sports today to comprehend. Current Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, who played for Summitt in the late 1970s, told me a few years ago when I was visiting Knoxville that one of the greatest gifts Summitt had given her was the knowledge that it didn’t matter what other people thought about them.
What mattered is how they felt about themselves. Summitt believed if they acted and played like champions, they would ultimately be treated that way. And she was right. By the late 1980s, the Lady Vols were regularly outdrawing the men’s team. In 1998, they averaged more than 12,000 fans, outdrawing five NBA teams.
Summitt worked tirelessly not only to make her team into a great team but also show the world that women’s basketball was a great sport. She pushed for more television exposure for her sport, and her rivalry with Connecticut’s Auriemma was instrumental in the birth of the WNBA.
That’s right. If there hadn’t been a Pat Summitt, there might not be a 20-year-old women’s pro league. Val Ackerman, the league’s commissioner for its first nine seasons, has said that the NBA was looking to take advantage of the surging popularity of the women’s game when they voted to start the league in 1996.
The world Summitt leaves is vastly different from the one that she entered, and her legacy is that she had plenty to do with that.