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When Pat Summitt took over as the head coach at the University of Tennessee in 1974, she was just 22 years old, barely removed from her own collegiate playing career. Women’s basketball was not yet an Olympic sport, not yet recognized by the NCAA, there was no women’s professional league in the U.S., and several states still played six-on-six high school basketball, where three girls were in the frontcourt, three in the backcourt, and none were allowed to cross midcourt. Two years later Summitt played for the first-ever women’s Olympic team, earning silver—balancing her collegiate coaching duties with rehabbing a torn ACL and co-captaining the team. A year after that she coached Tennessee to their first Final Four. She coached a women’s Olympic gold medal team in 1984, won her first NCAA title in 1987. Two college courts in Tennessee are named for her, the one she played on at Tennessee-Martin, and the one she presided over for 34 years at Tennessee, winning 1,098 games (a record for any D-I coach) and eight national titles.
Summitt, who died Tuesday morning at 64 from complications of early-onset Alzheimer’s, did more for basketball than anyone not named James Naismith. She didn’t make women’s basketball, she made women’s basketball matter. To everyone. She was the sport’s biggest figure during a sea change that saw Title IX (which passed just two years before she took over at Tennessee) take effect and produce superpowers, transforming women’s college basketball from a niche sport dominated by small southern schools to a national phenomenon. Her first Final Four run happened when the AIAW was in charge. By the the time the NCAA took over in 1982, Tennessee was a national power. When the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams, she had already won three national titles.
If you were a women’s basketball player in the ‘80s, ‘90s, ‘00s, you either played for Summitt or wanted to. She inspired everyone to play harder, whether they played for her or not, and inspired her own players to follow in her footsteps: Forty-five of her former players, including current Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, have gone on to become coaches—a number that will no doubt continue to rise. Considering that she coached 161 players total, that means over a quarter of them have become coaches. Every single one of her players graduated, and every single one of them who played four years at least played in the Elite Eight. She demanded excellence, and she got it.
Like John Wooden before her, she transformed a game and the people who played it, reaching millions who never set foot on her campus or played her sport.
Summitt took a job that originally paid $3,000 a year and required her to wash uniforms and drive the team van and turned it into one of the premier jobs in the country. Not that she was ever going to leave it for someone else, not until she had to. She led the Lady Vols to 36 straight 20-plus win seasons—yes, 36—and when approached about maybe taking over the men’s program, she declined in remarkable fashion: “Why is that considered a step up?” It wouldn’t have been. It also may have been fortunate for the men’s team players that she didn’t, seeing that she ran them ragged when she took over a practice from then-coach Bruce Pearl in the late 2000s.
Summitt was inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, where she joined Olympians she’d played with (Ann Meyers, 1993) and coached (Anne Donovan, 1995; Nancy Lieberman-Cline, 1996). None of her former Tennessee players have joined her yet, but some undoubtedly will: Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings, and Candace Parker. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, had a plaza in Tennessee dedicated to her in 2013. In a statement released today, President Obama said in part, “her legacy, however, is measured much more by the generations of young women and men who admired Pat’s intense competitiveness and character, and as a result found in themselves the confidence to practice hard, play harder, and live with courage on and off the court.”
Pat Summitt is gone, but her lessons, her inspirations live on. Like John Wooden before her, she transformed a game and the people who played it, reaching millions who never set foot on her campus or played her sport. Her basketball lessons spoke to wider truths. But the direct line is always best, and there are 45 coaches out there who learned from the best, passing Summitt’s lessons on to a whole new generation of female athletes. They’re living in a future that Summitt made possible. Pat Summitt died, but her dream never will.