“Summitt earned the right to handle this on her own terms. She isn’t bigger than the program. She is the program.”
— David Climer, the Tennessean
Just weeks before the sports world celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the passage of Title IX, one of the true icons of both women’s sports and the sports world in general, Pat Summitt, is retiring as basketball coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols. It’s hard to imagine someone in our polarized society who has earned everyone’s respect as fully as Pat Summitt. She built a women’s sport in a red state and left all observers from every political stripe in awe of her intensity, her work ethic and her hawk-eyed smarts. As she once said, “I’m sure there were some good old boys who thought, ‘I’m not going to watch women’s basketball.’ But when they saw it, they saw something they didn’t expect.”
Late, great UCLA coach John Wooden once called Summitt the best coach in the sport, and the numbers back it up. This is someone who won more college basketball games than Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (1,098) and more national championships than Coach K and Dean Smith combined (8). She is also still just 59 years old, but made the decision to say goodbye. It had to be done. Coach Summitt announced last year that she was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s. This season saw Coach Summitt occasionally drift and stare into the deep distance during practices, or clutch the edge of a table or clipboard to keep her hands steady. But still, even with Alzheimer’s, she led the Lady Vols to a 27-9 record, only losing in the Elite 8 to a Baylor team that was on its way to finishing 40-0.
It was time to step down, deal with her health, raise money for her foundation aimed at battling this evil, merciless disease, and after thirty-eight years, hand the clipboard to someone else.
As Ann Killion wrote for Sports Illustrated, “It’s been heart-wrenching to witness, even from afar. I can only imagine the pain suffered by those closest to Summitt—her assistants, her players, her son, Tyler. We saw a glimpse of it last month, on the night that Tennessee’s season ended—a night that many suspected would be the last for Summitt—when [assistant coach Holly] Warlick broke down in tears in the postgame interview. Her pain was so sharp, it took my breath away.”
It did for so many, as former and current players spent much of last season grieving with their coach. That’s the awful truth about Alzheimer’s. The person afflicted will be with us for some time, but you still need to hurry and say goodbye. Despite the emotional strain and endless well-wishers, Coach Summitt kept pushing forward until season’s end.
After winning the SEC Tournament, Lady Vols senior Shekinna Stricklen said, “It’s been a hard thing to deal with, but I’d do it all over again if I could. We’ve all learned so much from Pat. She’s such an inspiration.”
This is true. But it’s an inspiration and a legacy that is greater than wins and titles and even more profound than the bravery with which she’s confronting this chapter of her life. In so many respects Pat Summitt is women’s sports in the United States: fearless, self-made and tough as hell. Just consider that Pat Summitt started coaching at UT in 1974, two years after the passage of Title IX. Her salary that first year was $8,900. She was only 22 years old and the program was of such low stature, it made sense to her that players just call her “Pat,” a practice that has never changed.
Summitt had free reign to build the UT women’s hoops program because no one in the high profile, football-dominant, world of Tennessee athletics gave a damn whether it lived or died. One writer described it as the “step child” of the athletic department and based on how the program was deprioritized and under-funded, that description serves as a grave insult to stepchildren everywhere.
But her teams competed with the fierce intensity of their coach, traveling the country looking for opponents. Their grueling schedule and unreal success at home was noticed, and fans in Knoxville and beyond started to pay attention. As Coach Summitt said, “We’ve built this fan base not on scheduling patsies. We’ve built it on bringing in the top opponents throughout the country from a lot of conferences and our fans deserve that. We also think that to be the best you have to play the best.”
Summitt also recruited and coached players who became champions and icons of the sport: There were “The Meeks” Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall, Kara Lawson, Candace Parker, and three-time All-American Holly Warlick, who now takes over as head coach.
Summitt will still be a presence in the program, and has promised to be at games, offer advice when asked and even help recruit. But a chapter in the history of sports closed today, and while we celebrate the unbelievable legacy of Pat Summitt, we should also be brave enough to say that we are all weaker for her absence.