I’d been bracing myself for the death of Pat Summitt the last two days, since reading that the inspirational, former University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach was nearing the end and surrounded by her family.
Still, the news of her death today knocked me back and left me with an empty feeling.
She was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s just five years ago. When it was announced, I thought she’d be around maybe 10 more years, but that disease is relentless and moves more quickly than many of us like to acknowledge. It took her at 64.
Although she rang up three fewer national championships (with eight) than Coach Gino Auriemma of Connecticut, she racked up more wins than any other Division I college coach, male or female. Her drive, competitive spirit and icy glare — which she bestowed on her players and referees alike — were legendary.
Here are a couple of classic Summitt quotes:
:: “Teamwork is what makes common people capable of uncommon results.”
:: “Success is a project that’s always under construction.”
Both are so true but, at the same time, so hard to live your life by. Striving for teamwork — in the workplace, at home, wherever — is difficult. At the same time, once you achieve a degree of success, it’s tempting to sit back and loll in satisfied feelings.
Summitt, who grew up on a farm in Tennessee, was an incredible trailblazer. She became Tennessee’s head coach at 22 after graduating from the University of Tennessee-Martin in 1974. That was eight years before the N.C.A.A. began sponsoring women’s basketball and 43 years after the NCAA held its first postseason tournament for men.
Her starting salary was $250 a month. A New York Times story said: “She held a doughnut sale to help pay for the team uniforms, which she washed herself. Her team once slept on mats at an opponent’s gym because there was no money for a hotel.”
I can’t say I started following women’s basketball because of Pat Summitt, but I’m sure she had an indirect influence. Under her, women’s college basketball became a big deal. Not as big as men’s basketball by any stretch, but it started making headlines and getting on national TV.
I recall the apex of the 1997-98 season, when Tennessee beat Louisiana Tech 93-75 in the women’s final at Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium. It was Tennessee’s third consecutive NCAA title and the only perfect season (39-0) the Lady Vols ever had.
I didn’t go to that Final Four, but it was about then that I was getting into women’s basketball. In recent years, I’ve been to several Women’s Final Four tournaments. At one of them — can’t remember which — Summitt was the halftime show. Seated on a stool and holding a mic, she answered questions from an interviewer and talked about her life and times as a coach. It was a terrific halftime show, and afterward I saw her standing on an arena concourse, about to return to a private suite. She was surrounded by a handful of people, and I passed up the opportunity to wait and say hello. Now, of course, I wish I would have waited to shake her hand and look in those eyes.
As you would expect, she faced her death sentence with determination and grace. In an interview that is running on ESPN, she said accepting the Alzheimer’s diagnosis was extremely difficult but that after about a year she decided to dig in and fight as hard as she could.
“You can keep livin’ your life,” she said. “It may not be the best thing. But you just got to make it what it is. And, you know, that’s what I’ve done.”
What a coach…what a woman…what a person to emulate.