Women's College Basketball
The story behind Pat Summitt's enduring legacy
Women's College Basketball

The story behind Pat Summitt's enduring legacy

Updated Jul. 20, 2021 9:02 p.m. ET

By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist 

Editor's Note: This story is part of FOX Sports' series celebrating Women's History Month.

About nine months ago, on the fourth anniversary of Pat Summitt’s death, LSU head women’s basketball coach Nikki Fargas remembered one of the sport’s icons with an online message.

"I miss you," Fargas wrote. "There’s nothing else to say."


The image behind the words, a smiling Summitt with arms folded on a hardwood sideline, was a lovely one, as was the tribute.

But when it comes to Summitt, there is more to say. There always is. There is plenty to say about her legacy as a pioneer and as the leader of eight national championship-winning teams. There is something different to remember whatever time of year it is, but especially at this precise turn of the calendar, as March rolls into April and college hoops unfolds its most majestic drama.

With the NCAA Women’s Tournament off to a roaring start and what promises to be a mouthwatering Final Four nearly inked, women’s basketball is producing some spectacular entertainment.

As it does so, the legacy of the trailblazers who brought the game to this point — none more so than Summitt — has never been more significant.

"I remember her all the time but especially at this time of year," current Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper told me in a telephone interview. "This is when so many special things happened.

"Some of the things that are happening now fit in with what she worked toward. Pat wanted success for her team, but she wanted all of women’s basketball to be strong and for the sport to grow and have a bigger spotlight."

Summitt died in 2016 after a five-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Her career at Tennessee spanned from 1974 – when she took over as a 22-year-old barely older than some of her players, earned $250 a month, drove the team bus and washed the uniforms herself – until 2012. She never had a losing season and, from the time women’s hoops became an official NCAA sport, had a span of 27 straight Sweet 16-or-better appearances until it was broken in 2009.

As a member of both the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, Summitt's mark lives on in numerous ways, but perhaps most specifically in the coaching tree that stems from her influence. The incredible branches of that tree stretch across the country and even internationally, with the strongest roots in the SEC.

Harper, a starting point guard on the three-peat Tennessee team of 1996-98, has been the head coach in Knoxville since 2019. Fargas took over at LSU a decade ago, having played for Summitt from 1990 to '94. Then there is Kentucky’s Kyra Elzy and Mississippi State’s Nikki McCray-Penson, who were also part of the '90s Tennessee juggernaut.

"With her players who went into coaching, I think we feel it is part of our duty to teach her legacy," Harper said. "She was the most influential person in our sport. Her message runs through me, and now I’ve had my own players go into coaching. She touched so many people and continues to do so.

"Watching her, observing her, you realized the class she had, the way she treated people. She was graceful and made everything look so easy. Very poised, very calm. The intensity to find ways to succeed was always there. It was a relentless pursuit of elite-level success."

The current women’s tournament has seen games played at a ferocious pace, overtime thrillers, last-gasp game-winners, star players stepping forward into the national spotlight and ever-increasing competitiveness. Summitt, according to Harper, would thoroughly approve.

Players such as Paige Bueckers have blossomed into recognizable stars; Bueckers has 800,000 social media followers and looks to be a can’t-miss diamond in the pro ranks. But the fight for equality continues, with the NCAA rightly coming under fire for disturbing differences in the preparation facilities afforded to the men’s and women’s teams, sparking a swift promise to take action.

Dan Fleser of The Chattanoogan has covered University of Tennessee sports since 1988 and witnessed the magic of the Summitt era. "The game has changed a lot, but Pat saw what women’s basketball could become and wanted to take it there," Fleser said.

"She believed in the sport, was always a great spokesperson for it. She led by example and showed how to be great while still being very accessible.

"You look at the players she coached who are now into coaching, and you think it’s not really a great surprise. When you go to work every day with someone like that, you have to think a number of them are going to be inspired to take it up themselves."

For all the hardware Summitt collected, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Four NCAA title game defeats – all to UConn – stung Summitt but never dimmed her passion or resilience.

Harper’s Volunteers bowed out in the second round of this year’s NCAA Tournament, upset by 6-seed Michigan 70-55. Just like she does in times of success, Harper cast a thought to Summitt and what her old coach might say.

"Pat would always try to look at the positives," Harper said. "If things hadn’t worked out, she knew how to take time off. Then she would say ‘let’s get to work’ and figure out how to bounce back stronger."

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the daily newsletter here.


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