MILWAUKEE — Tyler Summitt didn’t grow up playing video games with his friends. He spent his childhood at team banquets and Final Fours.
The son of legendary University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, Tyler was raised differently than most. And that’s not a complaint — it’s a compliment.
It’s one thing to be the son of the winningest coach in college basketball history, but another altogether to live a profession from a young age and soak up every bit of knowledge possible. By the time he reached high school, Tyler Summitt knew he wanted to be a coach. When his playing career as a walk-on at Tennessee ended in March, he was ready for the next step.
At 21, Summitt set out searching for the door that would lead him to his first college head coaching job. North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Louisville’s Rick Pitino talked to him about joining their men’s programs as a graduate assistant. Multiple women’s teams had openings — including the program his mom built at Tennessee. But at his mother’s urging, Summitt left his comfort zone and applied for a spot on Terri Mitchell’s women’s basketball staff at Marquette.
It was hard for Mitchell to ignore the name, but Summitt wouldn’t turn 22 until September. Mitchell paused at his age for a bit, then decided to give Summitt a call. Ten minutes of conversation was all it took for Mitchell to know she had to bring him in for an interview.
On the other end of the phone, Tyler Summitt briefly thought the door was closed. He got the impression Mitchell had other candidates lined up and he was ready to move on, but 45 minutes later he was on a flight to Milwaukee for an interview.
“I felt like I was talking to someone who had been in the business for a very long time,” Mitchell said. “His knowledge of the game and his perspective was that of someone that had embraced everything that his mom was teaching him.
“He was just a student of the game, but it was so much more than that. It was like he had applied it even though he hadn’t been an assistant coach yet.”
In the interview, Mitchell was gauging how Summitt would fit into her program. She knew he was well versed in X’s and O’s — but Mitchell quickly found out Summitt had learned a lot about team building and creating a championship mentality from the woman who had won eight national titles. Before he left for the airport, Tyler Summitt was offered the job. But it was Mitchell’s message to him that convinced him to accept.
“She said right then and there to realize I’m not offering it to Pat Summitt’s son, I’m offering this to Tyler,” Tyler Summitt said. “That really meant a lot.”
Years — and years — of preparation
On the desk of Tyler Summitt’s office at the Al McGuire Center on Marquette’s campus sits an old MacBook laptop. The casing is worn, but the knowledge inside is priceless.
Starting during Tennessee’s national championship season of 1997-98 — when Summitt was just 7 — he began taking notes on anything and everything related to running a basketball program. He has notes from his mother and her Olympic coach, Billie Moore, tidbits from his college coaches Bruce Pearl and Cuonzo Martin, and bits and pieces he took from other coaches while on Tennessee’s scout team.
As Summitt clicks through the seemingly endless number of files on the laptop, it’s easy to see why he’s a rising star in his profession. A treasure trove of material covers subjects such as how he would run summer camps, build relationships, devise game plans, coach clinics, boost confidence in players, delegate power, deal with disciplinary issues and approach the day before, of and after a game. Oh, and there’s also plenty of playbook material.
Summitt started to get serious about his future in high school. Every morning before classes, he’d take in Tennessee’s morning practice. After school, he’d have his own high school practice and immediately rush to coach a men’s AAU team.
“It was very obvious to me that this was meant for me,” Summitt said. “I really felt like God gave me a gift and a passion for coaching.
“It was that time early in high school that I knew ‘Hey this is what I really want to do.’ “
The best teacher
Some college coaches get so caught up in the race that their kids get lost in the shuffle. Pat Summitt wasn’t one of those coaches.
Tyler, an only child, was her pride and joy and was always involved with her program. When he was cut from his sixth-grade basketball team, Pat Summitt was outraged as a mother but then asked her son if he had worked hard enough to make the team. He admitted he hadn’t, and she used the experience as a teaching tool.
“Mom always did things the right way,” Tyler Summitt said. “As a coach, it’s very easy to get a win-at-all-costs mentality. She never got that, no matter how badly she wanted to win. At the same time, though losing killed her, her players not playing hard killed her more. It was more about the process, about the effort and the toughness they had, and not the scoreboard.”
And it was unfailingly about doing the right thing.
“You would really have to be in the thick of it to know,” Tyler Summitt said. “I don’t think anyone outside of Division I college sports would realize the decisions that you have to make on a daily basis that involve integrity. I appreciate it so much more now when I’m making the right decisions when not everybody is.
“I think that’s what’s had the impact on me and made me more mature. I grew up with that. She prepared me to be a leader.”
One career ends, another begins
April 18, 2012, was supposed to be one of the happiest days of Tyler Summitt’s life. Instead, he had to share the day of his hiring at Marquette with less cheerful news.
On that Wednesday in April, Pat Summitt announced she was stepping down as coach of the Volunteers, almost one year after making public her battle with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Though his mother’s decision hit Tyler Summitt hard, he was able to be strong because of the relationship he had with his mother and the values she taught him.
“When I had to deal with our financial advisers or our lawyers or our doctors or her support group, she prepared me for that,” he said. “It’s neat that I’m able to give back.”
Pat is doing well, according to Tyler. She still attends Tennessee practices and games and even has made a trip to Milwaukee to visit her son. Marquette hosted “We Back Pat” night in December to benefit The Pat Summitt Foundation. Mitchell didn’t want Pat Summitt visiting as a coach but rather as Tyler’s mom.
“I was very clear with that,” Mitchell said. “I wanted him and everyone to know that I’m not here to get every ounce of knowledge out of her. I wanted her to come as a mom and for the two of them to have quality time. And they did that. That to me is the most important thing.”
Settling in — for now
Two months into his first season at Marquette, Tyler Summitt is thrilled with the decision to make Milwaukee his new home. His fiancée is about to move north from Knoxville, Tenn., and his mind is at ease knowing his mother is doing well.
If he had any concerns about his mom’s health, he wouldn’t have moved so far away from her. On the sideline, Summitt loves his role on Mitchell’s staff and never expected Mitchell to give him this much freedom in his first year.
“He’s a great man, period,” Mitchell said. “Take basketball out of it. He’s a great man, great person, fun to be around, engaging. It’s going to keep getting better. It’s just the beginning of what’s going to be a great and long and fun relationship in this business with him.”
How long will he be at Marquette? Well, probably however long it takes a program to hire him as its head coach. For Mitchell, it’s not if Tyler Summitt will be a head coach, it’s when.
“He wants it,” Mitchell said. “He’s going to be very successful in this profession based on this: He is a worker, a tireless worker. I want to provide the venue for you to put that out there. Take the knowledge you have and now let’s give you experience. It’s not about me; it’s about my team. Everyone has a voice. We just want our players to get better, and he’s really thrived on that.”
When told what Mitchell said of his chances of being a head coach, Tyler Summitt’s face lit up — but he wasn’t surprised.