It’s a weird day on Rocky Top. Pat Summitt, the iconic coach of the University of Tennessee’s Lady Vols Basketball Team, passed this morning after a battle with early-onset dementia, also known as Alzheimer’s Disease. An icon is gone from the world of college sports, and someone who transcended sports in general to become bigger than the sport itself. From all of us, Pat, thank you for your accomplishments.
Pat Summitt, arguably the winningest coach in college basketball history, managed to change what was considered a “rec” or “intramural” sport in women’s basketball at UT into a powerhouse winning eight national championships. If you’re not from Knoxville, you’ll have a hard time understanding what it was like trying to find a parking spot near the Thompson-Boling Arena during nights the Lady Vols played during Summitt’s reign as head coach. People flocked to see her teams. Coaches flocked to see her secrets in not just winning ball games, but motivating students. All day on local radio and TV stories of Pat Summitt’s legacy have been floating around. Funny thing is that if you looked at it from her perspective, none of what’s being shared would be “legendary.” It was just the right thing to do.
One story I’ll not forget soon involved a fundraiser for breast cancer held at Thompson-Boling called “Think Pink, Bleed Orange.” Every spectator at the game that night was to receive a T-Shirt reading that slogan. Unfortunately, due to the Athletics Director’s fuckup, Summitt was told only enough shirts would be available for those sitting in bowl seats to court side.
“You mean only the rich people will get those shirts?” Summit asked.
“Yes ma’am.” replied the Athletics Director.
“That ain’t right.” Summitt then proceeded to find out how much money was necessary to fund everyone in the building getting a T-Shirt that evening and wrote a check for the remaining amount, out of her own pocket. She never asked for a reimbursement.
More impressive than her basketball wins is her success rate for graduating athletes. Under Summitt’s tenure, 100% of all Lady Vols players graduated from the University of Tennessee. An alleged tradition went something like this: Coach Summitt didn’t care how late her students were out past a game; if you had class the next day you were in one of the first three rows, front and center, and ready to go when the professor came in the room. Miss class, you didn’t play. Simple as that.
The level of respect Pat Summitt showed everyone was astounding too. So much so, that when news broke Summitt was in the last hours of her life, it broke in the media only yesterday. The media loved Coach Summitt so much for the way she treated them (including home cooking and homemade ice cream) and the respect she’d shown people all over Tennessee they placed a voluntary “gag order” on reporting her condition until it couldn’t be held back anymore.
Local historian and comedian Shane Rhyne summed up Pat Summitt’s legacy better than I could on Facebook. I’m quoting him here, because his stats are better than anything I could muster.
A few things worth noting about Pat Summit:
1. She had a 100% graduation rate. 100.
2. She became the winningest coach of all time not by playing cupcake schedules, but by challenging herself & her team. Almost 50% of her career games were coached against ranked opponents.
3. She did not expect perfection, but she did expect effort.
4. She believed the key indicator to a team’s future success was not how they played together on the court, but how they treated each other off of it.
5. She believed every player’s contribution had value to the team’s success. She rewarded everyone, including scheduling away games in or near a senior’s hometown, so friends and family could see her play for the famous Lady Vols, even if it meant scheduling a game against the #1 ranked team in the nation on their home court.
Today and in the future, schools and coaches will be investigated, studied, and questioned about academic standards, legal issues, and assorted scandals. There will be administrators, athletic directors, coaches, and boosters who will try to tell you that sometimes you have to cut corners or relax your standards if you want to field a winning team.
You owe it to her legacy to point to Pat Summit and tell them, “She didn’t.” (my emphasis)
Truer words will never be spoken now or in the future about a college sports icon. Pat, from all of us on Rocky Top to you and yours, thank you for taking that “rec sport” and turning it into a national phenomenon.
And we all owe Pat’s legacy that much. Never cut corners. Ever.