Reaching for Summitt way of life for former Tennessee coach
Needing yet another men’s basketball coach, Tennessee officials turned to the one person they thought would be perfect to take over the Volunteers program.
Pat Summitt said no.
She wasn’t interested in the job in 1994 after Wade Houston was forced out, and she turned it down again when Jerry Green quit in March 2001. A Tennessee governor once joked he wouldn’t have his job if Summitt ever wanted to run her home state.
Breaking the glass ceiling in the men’s game, political office, that wasn’t Summitt’s motivation. She had the only job she ever really wanted.
“I want to keep doing the right things for women all the time,” Summitt said in June 2011 after being inducted into her fifth Hall of Fame.
Summitt died Tuesday morning at age 64.
The woman who grew up playing basketball in a Tennessee barn loft against her brothers, and started coaching only a couple years after Title IX was invoked, spent her life working to make women’s basketball the equal of the men’s game. In the process, Patricia Sue Head Summitt stood amongst the best coaches in any sport when she retired in April 2012 with more victories (1,098) than any other NCAA coach and second only to John Wooden with eight national championships.
Summitt used the sport and her demand for excellence to empower women and help them believe they can achieve anything, taking no backseat to anyone.
When I moved to Tennessee in 1976, girls played six-on-six, half-court basketball designed to protect them from getting hurt. Summitt, who took her Lady Vols to four AIAW Final Fours, refused to recruit Tennessee players. Tennessee high schools switched to five-on-five rules starting with the 1979-80 season.
The NCAA finally started running a national postseason tournament for the women in 1982. At the time, Summitt was known for having “corn-fed chicks” on her roster, big and strong but not talented enough to win national titles. After she won her first national title in 1987 in her eighth Final Four either in the AIAW or NCAA, she said, “Well, the monkey’s off my back.”
Back then only a student ID was needed to attend a women’s game. And there was no demand for the results of those games. After graduating from Tennessee, I helped the sports writers by bringing notes from an NCAA Tournament game back to the office for someone else to write up. There was no urgency since there was no reader demand.
So Summitt worked to make it impossible to ignore her team or the women’s game.
By January 1993, so many people wanted to watch then-No. 2 Tennessee visit top-ranked Vanderbilt that the contest became the first Southeastern Conference women’s game to sell out in advance. With children under 6 allowed in free, having a ticket didn’t guarantee getting through the door; at least 1,000 were turned away at the door - including Vanderbilt’s chancellor.
The Lady Vols won 73-68, a game I covered in my first year as a sports writer for The Associated Press in Nashville.
“This was the biggest game in women’s basketball, and that’s what I’ve been waiting 19 years to see,” Summitt said. “I’m glad I stayed around to see it.”
Summitt scheduled opponents anywhere and everywhere, barnstorming the country to introduce people to women’s basketball. Tennessee played Arizona State in 2000 in the first women’s outdoor game played at then-Bank One Ballpark, drew the largest crowd ever to a regional championship in March 1998 when 14,848 packed Memorial Gym in Nashville with Tennessee trying to finish off the NCAA’s first three-peat and helped Louisville set a Big East record christening the KFC Yum! Center in 2010.
The Lady Vols became must-see TV in the sport as Summitt put the women’s game on the national stage with six national titles in the span of 12 years.
I remember when I got real up-close look at what drove Summitt.
Assigned to cover Summitt as part of AP’s annual college basketball preview package in the fall of 1998, I spent nearly 30 minutes with the coach in her office.
Door closed, Summitt gave a glimpse of that famous stay-away stare. With undivided attention now on me, she wanted to know if I had talked with her mother, Hazel, for the story. She then showed me the engaging side, laughing when asked about a stretch of play during the 1998 title game that resembled the Showtime Lakers, beaming while reflecting on how well her Lady Vols showed women could play the game.
The Lady Vols lost 69-63 to Duke that season in the East Regional. The next day I left a message at Summitt’s house and late that afternoon, she called back to talk about more life lessons and basketball.
“It’s a game, and winning and losing both can be great ways to teach kids how to get ready for the real world,” said Summitt, who had to stop the interview because her mother had given son, Tyler, a gift. She explained he would have to save some of that cash before buying something for himself. Then she resumed the conversation about the game.
That was Pat Summitt: Hoops and family.
She held everyone to the exacting standards she learned from her father cutting tobacco and helping bale hay on the family farm. Tennessee and Connecticut was the biggest draw in women’s basketball with Geno Auriemma and his Huskies handing Summitt her lone title game loss in 1995. But Summitt canceled the series in 2007 and refused to say why other than, “Geno knows.”
Summitt ended a nine-year championship drought with her seventh national title in 2007 followed by the eighth in 2008. She became the first NCAA coach to win 1,000 games Feb. 5, 2009, and received a new contract that boosted her annual salary to $1.4 million - far removed from the $8,900 of her first season.
She never got to the 40th season in that contract, her career cruelly and prematurely ended by early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. She finished 1,098-208 with 18 Final Fours, at the time tying the men of UCLA and North Carolina for the most by any college basketball program.
Not that numbers define Summitt, who once said, “Records are made to be broken.”
Yes, all marks fade, but no one will eclipse Summitt’s contributions to women’s basketball.