How do you say goodbye to a woman who inspired generations of athletes and defined what it means to be a coaching legend?
Instead, you keep her memory alive in your heart and mind.
Pat Summitt, 64, who died on Tuesday after a nearly five-year battle with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, was the queen of women’s basketball.
As the longtime head coach at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Summitt guided the Lady Vols from 1974-2012. After 38 seasons, she had amassed a record of 1,098 victories and 208 losses, making her the winningest coach in college basketball history – both men and women. She was also the first men’s or women’s coach to reach 1,000 victories.
Summitt was the gold standard in coaching.
She built a powerhouse program, and we were her women’s basketball disciples. When she spoke, we listened. She was a fierce competitor who stressed unwavering work ethic.
Anyone who witnessed Summitt’s greatness will tell you that no one worked harder than she did – and the results showed.
Her coaching recorded included 18 Final Fours, eight NCAA Championships, and an Olympic gold medal.
The seven-time NCAA Coach of the Year championed gender equity in women’s sports, and we witnessed the fruits of her labor.
Loyal fans flocked to Thompson-Boling Arena to watch the Lady Vols, where on their attendance numbers often outpaced the men. Including the 1999 season where they compiled the women’s basketball record of 16,565 per game.
In 2006, she signed a contract extension that made her the first women’s basketball coach to reach the $1 million mark – a far cry from her $250 a month wages in 1974. In Summitt’s final season, she earned $1.5 million. Last year, 10 SEC coaches were paid more than $400,000. Coaches around the country have Summitt to thank for the road she paved.
Summitt commented on her historic contract extension by saying, “In women’s basketball, just the fact that we’re starting to generate more interest and revenue and television, you get the exposure for the university. All of those things are a plus in terms of potential compensation. That’s where I see our game improving and growing.”
Indeed, the game grew and improved under Summitt’s watchful eye.
I remember meeting her during the early 90’s at a Tennessee basketball camps, and again in 2013 at the Tribeca Film Festival. Her signature smile and warm embrace made me feel like I was the most important person in the room. I wrote about those life-changing moments in the piece Pat XO: ESPN’s Love Letter to Pat Summitt.
Summitt was an icon and the greatest basketball coach of all-time. She raised the bar and we all owe her a debt of gratitude. More importantly, we owe it to Summitt to keep her spirit and legacy alive.