Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in Division I college basketball history, passed away on Tuesday after a five-year battle with early onset Alzheimer’s. She was only 64.
As word of Summitt’s worsening condition spread over the weekend, her former players from the University of Tennessee — now WNBA stars and elite college coaches, business executives, and television analysts — flocked from all over the nation to be by her side. Tributes poured in from the likes of top men’s football coach Steve Spurrier to tennis icon Billie Jean King.
None of this was surprising. Summitt isn’t just a legend in women’s basketball; she is synonymous with the sport. With her fierce work ethic and unrelenting drive for perfection, she ushered women’s basketball through Title IX, its Olympic debut, and the launch of pro leagues. Fiercely loyal, she remained with the Lady Vols at Tennessee for her entire career, notching a 1,098–208 record in 38 seasons as a head coach, plus a remarkable eight NCAA titles.
In a world where women’s sports — basketball in particular — are still so often used as a punchline, Summitt didn’t just ask for respect and equality; she demanded it.
“To say there will never be anyone else like Summitt is not hyperbole. On the contrary, it seems inadequate,” Michelle Voepel wrote for espnW.
One of the Best coaches of all time- and a great friend! Our prayers go out to Coach and her family. #PrayingForPat🙏🏽
— Coach Steve Spurrier (@SteveSpurrierUF) June 26, 2016
Summitt grew up on a farm outside of Henrietta, Tennessee. Her talent on the basketball court was apparent at a young age; when she reached high school, her father moved the family so Pat could attend a school with a basketball team and therefore be afforded the same athletic opportunities as her brothers.
There were no women’s collegiate athletic scholarships at the time, but Summitt went on to be an All-American standout at the University of Tennessee at Martin. But her true impact on the sport was to come.
In an iconic 1998 Sports Illustrated profile, Gary Smith wrote about the beginning of ‘Hurricane Pat’s’ coaching career:
Summitt isn’t personally responsible for the rise of women’s sports, but she was one of the pioneers who took a sledgehammer to the stereotypes.
She showed up at Tennessee in 1974 as a grad assistant. Two weeks later, the head coach unexpectedly took a sabbatical and they handed the job and an $8,900 salary to Summitt.
She was 22 and had never run a practice, but who really cared? Back then women didn’t get scholarships and many weren’t even allowed to run all 94 feet of the court.
A lot of high schools were still playing six-on-six. Three players were designated for defense and three on offense. They weren’t allowed to cross midcourt.
Girls were too delicate to handle too much activity, you know.
There was nothing glamorous about those early days. Summitt held bake sales to raise money for uniforms, uniforms she would later wash by hand after games. She drove the team bus to games, and her team was once even forced to hold a sleepover in the opponent’s gymnasium the night before their game because there wasn’t enough money for a hotel.
During this time, she played for Team USA in the 1976 Olympics, the first time that women’s basketball was a competition sport in the Games. As a co-captain, she led the team to a silver medal. In 1984, she coached the U.S. team to a gold medal at the Los Angeles Games.
— Michelle Marciniak (@mmarciniak3) June 27, 2016
She was known for being incredibly tough on her players, on and off the court, and fostering a sense of belonging and ambition in everyone who came into her path. She was strict and demanding, loyal and caring, and proved that those concepts were anything but mutually exclusive.
Her players were expected to sit in the first three rows in all of their classes. They were expected to adhere to curfews and give their all in practices. If they broke these rules, Summitt never hesitated to take away playing time. In collegiate athletics, entitlement and the pressure to win often overshadow everything else, but with Summitt, nothing ever trumped integrity.
As she built Tennessee into a perennial powerhouse, Summitt was offered numerous other coaching positions, opportunities many would have deemed glitzier and more prestigious. WNBA teams wanted her to lead their franchises, and on at least two occasions — 1997 and 2001 — she was asked to coach the Tennessee men’s team. But she stayed right where she was, building a program that would go on to change women’s basketball.
“She was the one that everyone tried to emulate. That was the program everyone tried to be,” her rival, University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma told USA Today.
“If it wasn’t for her, we probably wouldn’t be playing in Madison Square Garden,” Diana Taurasi, a former UConn basketball star who is now the third-highest scorer in WNBA history, said. “Connecticut never would have been Connecticut. She made people take notice of the sport at a time when it probably wasn’t easy. She forced the hand. She was the one.”
Among dozens of other honors, Summitt was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in its inaugural year, 1999. In 2000, she was named the Naismith Basketball Coach of the Century. In 2011, she was named Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year, a title she shared with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. In 2012, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
— Rutgers W.Basketball (@RutgersWBB) June 27, 2016
Unfortunately, Summitt’s coaching career was cut short when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2011. She coached her final season in 2011–12, and then stepped down to hand the reins to her long-time assistant Holly Warlick.
Despite the devastating realities of the disease, Summitt remained int he public eye and never stopped fighting. She famously told her friends and players that there would be no pity party after her diagnosis.
Though her career and life were both cut short, Summitt left behind a legacy that has changed the face of women’s sports forever.
“She has changed the way I looked at life, and the way all her players have. She’s not a person who just talks the talk, she walks the walk as well. She does exactly what she says,” Candice Parker, a WNBA All-Star who won two national championships with Summitt at Tennessee, said over the weekend. “Through this disease, through Alzheimer’s, she’s been exactly what she’s lived her entire life [like], and that’s strong. And that’s what we need to be right now. We need to be strong for everybody.”