Summitt, who died Tuesday at age 64, inspired generations of women and proved to be one of the game’s greatest leaders. “She raised the bar for coaches everywhere — men’s and women’s,” says Storm star Breanna Stewart.
About 90 minutes before tipoff, just as I was preparing to talk with Storm rookie Breanna Stewart about Pat Summitt, a press-row wag curled his eyebrows and asked, “What’s Stewie going to say? She didn’t even play against Pat’s team.”
He was right. She didn’t. In this case, however, it doesn’t matter.
You won’t find an active boxer who fought against Muhammad Ali, either, but that didn’t stop an outpouring of tributes from younger generations following his death. Summitt, who succumbed to early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, at the age of 64 Tuesday, is in the same category.
Pat Summitt file
Women’s basketball coach at Tennessee for 38 seasons (started in 1974).
Career record: 1,098-208 (most wins in Division I all-time)
NCAA Final Four appearances: 18
NCAA titles (8): 1987, 1989, 1991, 1996-98 and 2007-08.
In 2005: With a 75-54 victory against Purdue on March 22, 2005, she earned her 880th victory, moving her past North Carolina’s Dean Smith as the all-time winningest coach in NCAA history.
In 2011: At age 59, she revealed she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia. She coached one more season.
“She could have coached any team, any sport, men’s or women’s. It wouldn’t have mattered, because Pat could flat-out coach.” — Peyton Manning, former Vols QB
“When she took the helm at Tennessee as a 22-year-old, she had to wash her players’ uniforms; by the time Pat stepped down as the Lady Vols’ head coach, her teams wore eight championship rings and had cut down nets in sold-out stadiums.” — President Obama
Just ask Stewart.
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“She’s a pioneer of women’s basketball,” Stewart said of the coach who won eight national titles at Tennessee. “She raised the bar for coaches everywhere — men’s and women’s.”
Stewart remembers playing in a scrimmage about six summers ago during her high-school days in Syracuse, N.Y. It was one of those obligatory offseason runs teams have to endure, usually to the fanfare of about 50 people.
This time, however, one of those 50 was the winningest coach in college basketball history — Patricia Sue Summitt. And while recruiting rules precluded her from talking to Stewart that day, Summitt did talk to all of her teammates.
According to Stewart, who ultimately picked UConn over Tennessee, that’s a moment they continue to reminisce about. It didn’t matter that UConn coach Geno Auriemma was en route to passing her on the all-time national-championship list — Pat was still women’s basketball’s pre-eminent figure.
Auriemma will ultimately be remembered for taking a program to new heights. But Summitt? She did that for an entire sport.
Storm coach Jenny Boucek grew up in Nashville and was adamant that women’s basketball was the most popular game in Tennessee. She mentioned how when people would enter the town of Shelby, the greeting sign would read “Home of the Lady Eaglettes.”
All that was a direct byproduct of what Summitt was achieving at Tennessee, molding her players into machines that, over the course of 38 years, amassed her 1,098 career victories.
“In Tennessee, when you asked girls what they wanted to be, it wasn’t a doctor or a lawyer — their ultimate goal was to be a Lady Vol,” Boucek said. “It represented empowerment, and that was a ripple effect of Pat Summitt.”
In a fantastic Sports Illustrated profile from 1998, writer Gary Smith tells of the time Summitt fought off labor pains while making a living-room recruiting pitch. Eventually, nature took over and Summitt was forced to go to the hospital, but four hours later, she called to check in on her recruit.
The feature also noted how scientists hooked up heart monitors to an array of college coaches, and found that Summitt’s ticker was the fastest while the clock was running, but slowest during timeouts.
The woman was put on this earth to coach — and did so as well as anyone until early onset dementia forced her to retire after the 2011-12 season.
She would bring players to tears in practice, then watch those tears turn joyful after championships. She would ride players like a drill sergeant, then watch them enjoy the ride to the Final Four.
Would she drive some to the brink of madness? That’s probably not a stretch.
But she was beloved. Even Sue Bird will tell you that much.
The Storm point guard played for UConn during the height of the Huskies-Lady Vols rivalry, but became friends with many of her former foes. And all of them would rave to her about what a joy Summitt was to play for.
That’s why Bird was among those punched in the gut when news of Summitt’s death hit Tuesday. She knows that it wasn’t just friends, family and former players that lost Pat, it was the game of basketball, too.
“I remember watching an interview with her, and someone asked, ‘What do you hope to leave on the game?’ and Pat said, ‘I just hope to make a difference,’ ” Bird said. “Everyone is really sad right now, but one thing you know is that she made a difference.”
Yes, she did make a difference. And you don’t have to have played against her to understand that.
Every player on the floor Tuesday knew what Pat Summitt meant to the game of basketball.
That will be the case for generations to come.