by Dan Wetzel
They’ve called Pat Summitt a groundbreaker, a legend, an inspiration and the “Wizard of Knoxville,” a nod to UCLA’s John Wooden, who may be the only college basketball coach who can compare.
She’s recorded more than 1,000 victories at Tennessee in women’s basketball, eight national titles, two Olympic medals (silver as a U.S. player in 1976 and gold as Team USA women’s head coach in 1984) and enough memories for multiple lifetimes.
Only here comes the saddest news of all, Pat Summitt, at just age 59, has been diagnosed with early onset dementia.
“There’s not going to be any pity party and I’ll make sure of that,” Summitt told the Knoxville News-Sentinel in a statement that is as pure Pat Summitt as you’ll ever find.
After months of what she described as “erratic behavior” she went to the Mayo Clinic in May and has since received the diagnosis. She plans on coaching until she no longer can.
“I feel better just knowing what I’m dealing with,” she told the News-Sentinel. “And as far as I’m concerned it’s not going to keep me from living my life, not going to keep me from coaching.”
Really though, nothing is certain, except this is one cruel disease.
What a life this woman has led, and for her not to be able to sit back for decades to come and enjoy every last memory? What an impact this woman has had on so many other lives, and there’s a chance she won’t get to appreciate it, or recall it?
And how brutal is it that a woman of such accomplishment, wisdom and impact might have her career cut short, robbing any number of players that would’ve enjoyed her guidance.
In 15 years of periodic interviews and interactions with Pat Summitt, I left every single one with the same feeling: The woman is straight class. Like the truly great ones, you didn’t have to spend a great deal of time – or any at all – to feel her impact on the world, to take something positive from her. A combination of intelligence, drive, competitiveness and leadership, all in a homespun Southern voice that took women’s basketball (and women’s sports in general) from forgotten to the forefront.
She was 22 when she first coached the Lady Vols in 1975, the sport little more than an extracurricular pursuit. She was rehabbing a knee injury and hoping to make the ’76 Games in Montreal. Almost no one else wanted the job.
Now it’s big business, huge college crowds, even a professional league.
It simply doesn’t happen without Pat Summitt, who commanded attention and respect because there was no way you could look at her and her teams and provide anything else.
She’s an indomitable presence, who made her point about increased funding and opportunity and understanding through force of will, not whine. Pat Summitt didn’t claim people owed her or her women anything. She just proved they did.
Back in the day, women were to be protected in athletics – there was still 6-on-6 basketball being played out there because some didn’t think girls could handle the exertion of full-court ball.
From Day 1, Summitt coached the game like Henry Iba or Bob Knight would, with no excuses when it came to effort.
She worked like the daughter of a demanding dairy farmer had been taught – “the cows didn’t take a day off,” she said jokingly to me a few years back.
“For me it was the only way I knew how to approach coaching,” she said. “I think we surprised some people. I think they liked our intensity.
“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. I’m glad that’s changed.”
To say she impacted women’s sports across the board is understating it. You didn’t have to play basketball, let alone for her at UT, to be inspired.
Everything changed with Pat Summitt, the perfect personality at the perfect time, the one that helped make Title IX less of an obligation and more of an opportunity for these colleges that would’ve rather spent a scholarship on an extra tackling dummy.
The diagnosis is difficult, who knows what’s ahead. Hopefully she can continue to coach. Hopefully she can continue to lead. Hopefully she has years and years in front of her of clear memories about the power of her life.
The rest of the country certainly isn’t going to forget.