Basketball lost one of its greatest coaches and most recognizable figures on Tuesday, as legendary Tennessee women’s coach Pat Summitt passed away at the age of 64 following a five-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Over the course of her 38-year run as the head coach of the Lady Vols, Summitt was not only an icon within the program, but the face of women’s hoops as a whole. She is often credited with bringing the sport to new heights as the winningest coach in its history, and from her arrival in Knoxville two years after the 1972 passing of Title IX until her death, she changed the way multiple generations of women’s basketball players are perceived by fans and non-fans alike.
During her coaching career, which spanned from 1974-2012, Summitt won 1,098 games and is second all-time among women’s coaches with eight national titles. While Summitt once joked about having to "drive the van" and sleeping in opposing teams’ gyms during her coaching infancy, one has to look no further than the Lady Vols’ attendance numbers during her final season on the bench to understand the extent of Summitt’s impact on the program.
However, even legends tend to come from humble beginnings, and prior to becoming the best to ever do her job, young Patricia Sue Head was quite the player, as well.
The daughter of Richard and Hazel Head, Summitt was a four-year starter at Cheatham County High School in Ashland City, Tenn., where she was known at the time as Trish. Then from 1970-74 she played at UT-Martin and graduated as the program’s all-time leading scorer. In 1976, she was co-captain of the women’s national team, which won silver at the Olympic Games in Montreal, the first Games to include women’s basketball. (She’d also later coach the team to its first gold medal in 1984 in LA.)
Pat Summitt at Tennessee Martin University
Of course, by that time, Summitt’s legendary 38-year run as Tennessee’s head coach was already well underway.
Though the school only intended to hire the then-22-year-old as a graduate assistant while she finished her master’s degree at UT, Summitt was thrust into the head coaching role two weeks after she accepted the job, when former coach Margaret Hutson took an unexpected sabbatical prior to the 1974-75 season. At the time, Summitt had never so much as run a practice on her own. Still, the Lady Vols went 16-8 in Summitt’s debut season, her first win coming on Jan. 10, 1975, against Middle Tennessee State.
Prior to the start of Summitt’s third season, The Associated Press introduced its women’s basketball poll, and in December 1976, the second week of the poll’s existence, Tennessee made its first appearance. Amazingly, the Lady Vols stayed there for all but 14 weeks between that initial ranking and February of this year, with 10 of those weeks coming during the team’s 1984-85 season, a rare "down year" — if such a thing exists — by Summitt’s standards. (They still finished the season ranked 13th in the country.)
During that four-decade run of excellence, Summitt’s Lady Vols became the premier program in women’s college basketball.
Under Summitt, who married the late R.B. Summitt in August 1980, Tennessee reached 22 Finals Fours (including four in the AIAW, predating the first NCAA women’s tournament in 1982). Her first national title came in 1987 and her last in 2008. Further, Summitt’s teams won at least 20 games in each of the coach’s final 36 seasons, and won at least 30 games 20 times, including a perfect 39-0 season in 1997-98 that capped off a run of three consecutive national championships.
Overall, Summitt amassed a record of 1,098-208, including a 504-48 mark at home. Nearly half of her 1,306 career games came against ranked opponents — making her .840 career winning percentage all the more impressive — and to date, she’s the only 1,000-win coach in her field.
Accordingly, Summitt’s accomplishments earned her the Naismith Coach of the Century award in 2000, when she became the 16th woman to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
With her place in basketball lore already been cemented, Summitt coached another 12 years, with her final win — and record 112th NCAA tournament victory — coming on March 24, 2012, against Kansas, seven months after Summitt revealed she’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. One month later, Summitt announced she’d be stepping down as head coach, eliciting tributes from many of Summitt’s colleagues across college basketball.
"She is a model of class and courage, and I don’t think that enough can be said for just how much Pat has accomplished in building and elevating women’s basketball to its current heights," longtime Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, the second-winningest coach in women’s basketball history, said when Summitt was named head coach emeritus in April 2012. "Pat is Tennessee Basketball."
"For such a long time, Pat Summitt has been the gatekeeper for women’s basketball," added Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, another one of the game’s winningest coaches, upon Summitt’s decision to step down. "I feel like a piece of me has left the game, and there is no bigger loss to women’s basketball."
Pat Summitt with son Tyler.
Longtime Texas coach Judy Conradt described Summitt’s decision as "the end of an era," adding, "It’s a huge time to celebrate and show appreciation for what Pat has done for women’s basketball and for all of us who are involved in the sport and love it so much."
Summitt’s longtime nemesis, UConn coach Geno Auriemma, sang Summitt’s praises, releasing a 2012 statement that said, in part, "Pat’s vision for the game of women’s basketball and her relentless drive pushed the game to a new level and made it possible for the rest of us to accomplish what we did."
Meanwhile, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey described Summitt as the "John Wooden of women’s basketball," calling her "a great coach, a great ambassador in the game, and a great mother."
And perhaps that’s the easiest thing to overlook when it comes to Summitt’s legacy.
For virtually her entire adult life, Summitt served as a mother figure to the players who came through her program, but she also had an immeasurable impact on her son, Tyler, who was born on Sept. 21, 1990. Just like his mother, Tyler got into coaching early and became the youngest head coach in women’s basketball when he was hired by Louisiana Tech in 2014.
Tyler Summitt stepped down in April after two seasons on the job, but in 2013, while he was an assistant at Marquette, he discussed his relationship with his mom in an interview with FOX Sports, acknowledging the toll her Alzheimer’s had already taken.
"I think that to the public, she seems like she doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, and I think that’s great," Tyler Summitt said at the time. "But to me, her only child, who saw her juggle 20 things at one time and watch her be Wonder Woman for so many years, I know there’s a difference, because she doesn’t juggle 20 things anymore.
"To win those championships, to have all those wins, to keep her program at the top, to develop all those relationships, to be the problem solver and to be the face of the program — she was juggling a ton of things at one time," he continued. "And I think that’s the one thing, that she’s regular now. She’s not Wonder Woman anymore."
However, Tyler Summitt, in 2013, also suggested that Pat’s declining health would give her an opportunity to focus on personal relationships in a way she wasn’t able to when she was coaching — something she focused on, along with the life-saving efforts of the Pat Summitt Foundation, until her final days.
"Whenever I (used to) talk to her after her practices, I’d ask, ‘What did you think; what can I learn from that practice?’" said Tyler Summitt, himself a former walk-on at Tennessee. "And it would always be like, ‘They’ve got to do better on this drill,’ or ‘We’ve got to be better at rebounding or defense,’ or something like that. Now it’s, ‘It was so great to see Taber (Spani), and we had a great talk today.’
"And that’s what I’ve always told people — she will never measure her career by championships or wins or all the numbers that we like to throw out," he continued. "She measures it by those relationships and those people who are in coaching today or who are successful in whatever business they’re in. And if there’s any shift, that’s been her shift, in her focus on those relationships."