Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Pat Summitt a pioneer for women

Pat Summitt won 1,098 games, more than any other college basketball coach. She won eight national titles and an Olympic gold medal. Every single player who spent four years at Tennessee on Summitt's teams graduated with a degree.

The numbers Summitt accumulated during her 38-year career are mind-boggling. The impact she had in transforming women's basketball from a six-on-six intramural game to one with worldwide pro leagues and college arena sellouts is immeasurable.

But Summitt's most lasting influence originates with "The Look." To say her gaze is piercing doesn't do it justice. Her blue eyes could burn holes through steel — or through the uniform of a player who got lazy on one errant pass.

Summitt, 59, began her coaching career in 1974, before there were any female U.S. Supreme Court justices, before "Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, pre-Hillary Clinton, pre-Oprah Winfrey.

There weren't many tough female role models, or they were demonized as "women's libbers." But here was a leader whose glare was searing, demanding, critical. She wasn't afraid to yell instructions or stomp along the sideline in her high heels.

Her players didn't cower. They could take it. They wanted to win as much as she did. Summitt expected more, always more.

When she began coaching, women were considered too fragile to run the marathon at the Olympics. This summer, women's boxing will make its Olympic debut.

When she started out, young women were expected to sweat in the kitchen, not on the court, and nobody really wanted the $8,900 job of coaching a women's team. When she stepped down Thursday, weakened by early onset Alzheimer's disease, her salary was $1.5 million, and the Tennessee women's program was more successful than the men's.

Just as Billie Jean King made it cool to beat a man, Summitt made it cool to "act like a man," a description that seems ridiculous now. Who would expect girls or women to be any less competitive than boys or men? What father doesn't want his daughter to be aggressive on the field of play?

Summitt knocked down gender barriers that restricted females to acceptable "ladylike" behavior and aspirations.

"How awesome to see a female pumping her fist," said University of Miami coach Katie Meier. "Pat proved that kind of intensity is OK, which was a huge step forward for a lot of girls of my generation."

And for boys, who saw a strong, confident woman in charge.

"We are talking about a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen or those earned," Gloria Steinem said of her vision of equal rights.

Summitt mastered multi-tasking before the term was invented. She was going into labor when she visited recruit Michelle Marciniak. She decided she could give her sales pitch to the point guard and give birth to son Tyler on the same day, and that she did, gutting out the contractions in Marciniak's living room before rushing to the hospital.

Marciniak repaid that commitment by leading Tennessee to a national title in her senior season.

A 'working mom'

Summitt has been a "working mom" for 22 years — 38 if you count all the mothering she did of her players, including their laundry in the early years.

Summitt was a farm girl who grew up near Clarksville, Tenn., milking cows, harvesting tobacco and playing basketball with her brothers in the hay loft. She learned discipline from her father and compassion from her mother, both of whom worked from sunup to sundown.

What sets Summitt apart is how she tempered that fearsome dragon lady look with devotion and generosity. She cooked for her players, counseled them, clowned with them and insisted they call her Pat. She made them puke at workouts and hugged them in the locker room. She allowed rival coaches to observe her practices. Among many things she did for her peers, she recommended Meier for her first head coaching job. Months later, Summitt approached Meier to ask how it was going.

"I think I can do this," Meier said.

"Well, you better," Summitt said, curling an arm around Meier's shoulder. "Because I have my name on you."

Important legacy

Meier took a few minutes during the team banquet Thursday to announce Summitt's decision to retire and take the title of "head coach emeritus" and talk about her legacy as the 40th anniversary of Title IX approaches.

"I told my players that they wouldn't be here and wouldn't have athletic scholarships without her," Meier said. "What I learned from Pat was that you can either feel challenged or threatened. Which kind of person do you want to be?"

Summitt is a fighter. The disease that has affected her memory, concentration and stamina is another challenge. Her wondrous career as coach might have been cut short, but just as her fire lifted women's sports, her dignity can lift awareness and treatment of dementia and Alzheimer's.

Summitt said she doesn't want a "pity party" as her assistants, former players and rival coaches broke into tears.

She gave them The Look, and they knew she wasn't about to lose this one.

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