On Writing About Pat Summitt

Dec. 14, 2010 (Waco, Texas) -- Kim Mulkey and Pat Summitt. Photo © Cheryl Vorhis, all rights reserved.
Dec. 14, 2010 (Waco, Texas) — Kim Mulkey and Pat Summitt. Photo © Cheryl Vorhis, all rights reserved.

Word spread around the women’s basketball world over the weekend that icon Pat Summitt was in her last days after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for several years. I dreaded the thought of having to write an obituary. Over the weekend I barely slept, tossing and turning thinking about what losing her would mean to so many, what she has meant to basketball and her impact on advancement of women in sports, not to mention her emphasis on developing true student-athletes.

I had no idea how to even attempt to summarize the life of a legend. The first time I actually met Pat in person was during the 2007 SEC Championship in Gwinnett, Georgia. I was covering the tournament for a newspaper and also trying to get Hoopfeed off the ground.

When Pat walked into arenas at opposing schools, the crowd would routinely serenade her with a standing ovation. It was amazing. Fans loved her dearly. I saw this happen first-hand on Dec. 14, 2010 when the Lady Vols visited Baylor in Waco, Texas. It was a sold out game, the school’s entire Texas Bowl-bound football team led by quarterback Robert Griffin III was there and media row was jam packed. My seat was less than 10 feet from the Tennessee bench so I saw Summitt up close coaching her squad during. Here is a slideshow from that game.

Tennessee lost that evening, mostly because they simply did not have the weapons to stop 6-8 sophomore phenom Brittney Griner, who blocked nine shots during the contest, and a strong, speedy point guard named Odyssey Sims.

Anyway, as more news trickled in via text messages about Summitt’s health, I began writing Sunday night, and stayed up until about 2 a.m. the next morning. Oddly, just a few minutes after I decided it was time to go to bed, in the wee hours on Pacific time but 5:03 a.m. on the East Coast, the Pat Summitt Foundation posted the following update.

Again, I didn’t sleep well and I woke up in a start on Monday morning. I have lost a lot of people in my life and one thing that happens to me when I sense death is that I wake up like a bat out of hell knowing there is bad news in the air. A tweet from the Lady Vols was the first thing I saw when I checked Twitter to confirm my premonition.

So much has been written about Summitt, even before she passed away. And now the words are flowing fast and furious from all corners of the mediaverse. Here is my contribution.

Originally published on Hoopfeed.com on June 28, 2016

“I won 1,098 games, and eight national championships, and coached in four different decades. But what I see are not the numbers. I see their faces.”

Not since James Naismith invented the sport of basketball in 1891 and Senda Berenson organized the first women’s collegiate game in 1893 has anyone had more influence on women’s basketball than Pat Summitt. The winningest coach in the history of men’s and women’s Division I basketball passed away on June 28 after battling early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s Type.

“It is a very sad day on Rocky Top. Volunteers around the world are mourning the loss of the legendary Pat Summitt,” University of Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek said. “Pat was the greatest coach of all time; her fierce spirit will live on through her players, and through all of us who were inspired by her on a daily basis. Our sincerest sympathies go out to Tyler and all her family and friends.”

The women’s basketball world is reeling at the news of Summitt’s passing.

“Pat was my coach, my mentor, my colleague and a very dear friend,” current Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick said. “It is impossible to put into words how much she has meant to me and so many other individuals here at Tennessee and beyond. She played a very significant role in molding me into the person I am, and I will forever be grateful for the genuine care, guidance and wisdom she unselfishly shared with me and so many others through the years. I’ll always treasure the laughter we shared, the stories we loved to tell and certainly those stories we embellished. Pat gave me strength and courage to face anything. She was driven to perfection and always remained true to her standards. That meant doing things the right way, no matter what. In my eyes, there’s never been anyone better than Pat Summitt. She entrusted me with her legacy, and I will continue embracing her passion and doing everything in my power to uphold that.”

Summitt revealed her diagnosis of the condition in August 2011. After the 2010-11 season when the Lady Vols reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament in Summitt’s 37th year as the head coach of Tennessee, she decided to visit experts at the Mayo Clinic to address, as she put it, “some ongoing concerns” about her health.

The outpouring of support from the world of sports was instant and vast.

“It takes amazing courage for Pat to come forward and discuss her health with her players, our fans and the entire country, but that’s who she is,” Cheek stated after her announcement. “Pat Summitt stands for courage and integrity. We will stand behind her and support her in every way possible. We look forward to her continued leadership as the Lady Vols head coach and I know that even through this adversity she will be an inspiration to all of us.”

Summitt coached the next season but stepped down on April 18, 2012, approximately three weeks after the Lady Vols lost to Baylor in the Elite Eight.

“For four decades, she outworked her rivals, made winning an attitude, loved her players like family, and became a role model to millions of Americans, including our two daughters,” President Barack Obama said in a statement on the passing of Summitt. In 2012, Obama presented her with the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor awarded to civilians in the United States.

With 38 years under her belt as the leader of the Lady Vols, the Hall of Fame coach had amassed 1,098 victories, eight national championships and coached in 13 national championship games.

With Summitt at the helm, Tennessee also won the SEC Championship and SEC Tournament title 16 times each. She was named the SEC Coach of the Year eight times and the NCAA Coach of the Year seven times.

Her career also included stints with USA Basketball including coaching the 1984 U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team that won gold in Los Angeles. Tennessee produced 12 Olympians during Summitt’s tenure.

She was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in her first year of eligibility in 2000.

But Summitt’s influence goes far beyond basketball. She not only developed great basketball players, she cultivated student-athletes that also did well in the classroom. Many of her players were the first in their family to attend college. Summitt held a 100 percent graduation rate for all Lady Vols who completed their eligibility at Tennessee.

Before women’s basketball began competing in the NCAA level, Summit was helping grow the game with the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), a governing body for women’s college athletics founded in 1971. After Summitt took over as head coach of Tennessee in 1974, her team reached the Final Four of the AIAW national tournament twice. The AIAW disbanded in 1982 when the NCAA began hosting a postseason tournament. All 18 of Tennessee’s appearances in the NCAA Final Four were under Summitt, a record number that still stands.

While developing Tennessee into a national power, Summitt also mentored other coaches and helped increase the visibility of women’s basketball at-large by playing lesser-known programs all over the nation. Arizona State head coach Charli Turner Thorne was on the receiving end of Summitt’s generosity in 2000 when the legendary coach agreed to play the Sun Devils in the first-ever outdoor women’s college basketball game.

“We were trying to do this out-of-the-box event that would bring the national spotlight to Arizona State because we thought we were ready for it,” Turner Thorne said. “I called Pat and it did not work well in their schedule at all. They were on the road, it was right after Christmas and they had all these other games. I mean it just didn’t make a lot of sense at all to play the game and she did.”

The game was also a fundraiser for breast cancer research. Over 16,700 fans showed up at at Bank One Ballpark (now known as Chase Field) and the Sun Devils almost pulled out a victory over the Lady Vols.

“I just feel like that is such a just a great example of who she is and how she’s helped the game,” Turner Thorne said of Summit’s willingness to come to play ASU. “It was a turning point for our program…and a huge confidence builder for players. And we went on to have one of the best seasons since I’ve been here. She’s always been a great mentor to a lot of us.”

Summitt’s legacy also included three books she wrote with Sally Jenkins. Reach for the Summitt is a motivational book published in 1998. She chronicled Tennessee’s undefeated 1997-98 championship season in Raise the Roof. After her diagnosis, she talked her life after Alzheimer’s in the memoir Sum It Up.

Before Summitt entered the coaching world, she played basketball at Tennessee-Martin, graduating in 1974. While in college, she played for USA Basketball in the 1973 World University Games in the Soviet Union. Later, she was a member of the 1976 U.S. Olympic Team that won the silver medal at the Montreal Games.

She was born Patricia Sue Head on June 14, 1952, in Clarksville, Tenn., the daughter of Richard and Hazel Albright Head and the fourth of five children. She came from a poor, hard-working family and learned to play basketball in a hayloft competing with her older brothers.

She is survived by her mother; a son, Ross “Tyler” Summitt; a sister, Linda; and brothers, Tommy, Charles and Kenneth. Tennessee is planning a public service at Thompson-Boling Arena to celebrate Pat Summitt’s life. A private memorial will be held in Middle Tennessee. Memorial gifts may be made to the Pat Summitt Foundation: www.patsummitt.org/donate.