by Michael Adams
KNOXVILLE, TN- Pat Summitt, the legendary coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers basketball team, died on Tuesday following a battle with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. She was 64.
Today is a sad day for the world of sports, and for the legions of people, men and women, inspired by Summitt’s work ethic and concern for the women who played under her. Her personality shines through above anything when her peers talk about her; more than her 8 Division I championships, more than her work to elevate Women’s Basketball as a whole, even more than the NCAA record 1,098 wins she accumulated as a head coach. Her passing has left hundreds of players and coaches saddened as they pause to reflect on an absolute titian of the game.
This is a sad day in the basketball community. Thank you Pat Summitt for everything you’ve done for our game.
— Lindsey Harding (@Lindsey_Harding) June 28, 2016
Coach #PatSummitt, you were the reason I started following Women’s College Basketball.
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) June 28, 2016
The stories Summitt’s friends and coworkers have given the media over the last couple days paint a picture of a woman who truly loved what she did for a living. Humble above all reasonable expectations for a person of her status, the tales of her incredible resilience somehow manage to bring her down to our level while elevating her above anything even remotely human. Before the NCAA formally recognized Women’s Basketball, the 22-year old Pat Summitt used to drive the team van on the way to road games. She used to put her players’ jerseys through the wash herself after games, because nobody else was around to do it.
Her ascendance into the national spotlight brought an entire sport along for the ride. Summitt coached the US Women’s Basketball team to its first Olympic Gold Medal in 1984, since then the team has dominated the competition. Several times she had been approached with an offer to coach men’s teams, a nigh-inconsiderable proposition in any other sport with any other coach. Every time she turned it down, opting to stick with her program in her home state. All the while, through glory and fame and unrivaled respect, none of it ever seemed to go to her head. Behind that infamous cold-eyed death stare was the same woman as always; one who loved to feed her players her famous spicy jalapeño corn, and later on showed their children the same care she had shown them.
Courtney Banghart, Head Coach of Princeton’s Women’s Basketball team, earned herself a place in Coach Summitt’s heart as “the woman who lost her car”.
My true story of Pat Summit. pic.twitter.com/uEo9EbkiSv
— Courtney Banghart (@CoachBanghart) June 28, 2016
Holly Warlick, current Head Coach of the Lady Vols, and longtime protégé of Summitt’s, summarized her influence on her own life as “profound.” “It simply amazes me the impact Pat has made on so many people’s lives,” Warlick said, “people Pat didn’t even know. It’s God’s gift to her.”
Coach Summitt’s commitment to the success of her players on and off the court was unparalleled. Her players who completed all four years of school at Tennessee had a 100% graduation rate. Summitt wouldn’t let them skirt by either; her players had to sit in the front of every class they had, and missing a class meant missing a game. In her own words, coaching was “the great passion of my life” to Summit. For her, the gig was about far more than what happened on the hardwood, “the job to me has always been an opportunity to work with our student athletes,” she said, “and help them discover what they want. I will continue to make them my passion.”
Summitt was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2012. President Obama remarked on Summit’s enduring legacy; he even mentioned her as an influence on his own daughters, both of whom play basketball. “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,” Obama said. “They’re standing up straight and diving after loose balls and feeling confident and strong.” In a statement released by the White House following her death, the President remembered Summitt in her own words, “What I see are not the numbers,” she said, “I see their faces.”
Pat Summitt leaves behind a country that still struggles with gender equality, even in the sports world she played such an instrumental part in revolutionizing. Everyone whose life was touched by her efforts can take some solace in knowing she no longer suffers from her disease anymore, but she will be missed all the same.
Featured Image: Pat Summitt Coaching During a Game, Source: Flickr, aaronisnotcool