“I’ve loved being the head coach at Tennessee for 38 years, but I recognize that the time has come to move into the future and to step into a new role.”
With those words the illustrious career of the all-time winningest basketball coach to walk the sidelines, Patricia Head Summitt, came to an early end. It was far from the storybook ending many would expect for a legend like Summitt but after her announcement less than a year prior that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, it was sadly far from unexpected.
What was not unexpected though was the way Summitt embraced the changes into her new role as head coach emeritus of the Tennessee Lady Vols basketball program with class, dignity and courage. Just like she had taught countless players, staff and others to do over her 38 years at the helm of the Lady Vols, no one in attendance expected anything less at this time either.
As she officially handed her whistle over to new Lady Vols head coach Holly Warlick, Summitt emphasized that she fully intend to continue working in her role as head coach emeritus, participating in practices, mentoring and teaching life skills to players in addition to continuing her active role as a spokesperson in the fight against Alzheimer’s through the Pat Summitt Foundation.
What Summitt never mentioned in her comments at that April 18 press conference though was what she has done best her entire life. That is to inspire people. Inspiring them to be competitors, inspiring them to be better people, inspiring them to do like her 1998 book instructed and Reach for the Summit in everything they do.
In the days and weeks following Summitt’s announcement that she was stepping down, the statements of admiration and tributes to her career accomplishments were countless. Former players and staff were recounting the many championships they had won. Media members publicly thanked her for her openness with them as they did their jobs of reporting. Awards were imparted on her like the Sports Illustrated Sportswomen of the Year and the ESPY’s Authur Ashe Courage award. The President of the United States even took notice, bestowing the nation’s highest civilian honor on Summitt, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
What all these tributes to Summitt have in common though was that no matter the words that were used in them or how much they talked about athletic achievements, they all always came back to that one thing Summitt had consistently done above all else. She inspired them. It didn’t matter who they were or what they did for a living, they each took inspiration from her in some way to better themselves.
Because of her there are young basketball players across the country who have been inspired to shoot extra free throws and work on rebounding day after day so they might have a chance to “play for Pat” one day. Businessmen have Summitt’s “Definite Dozen” tucked away in their desk for when they need that little reminder of just how to succeed at whatever they do. Even perceived rivals have drawn inspiration from Summitt over the years as Alysa Auriemma, the 26-year-old daughter of UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma, demonstrated when she authored a 2,366 word blog post about Summitt and what she has meant not only to women’s basketball but to her as a person.
This path of inspiration didn’t start in front of 21,678 orange-clad fans at Thompson-Boling Arena, or even in Knoxville at all. In fact Summitt has been inspiring people her whole life, many of whom she has never even met.
The story of Summitt’s upbringing on a dairy farm that hugs the line between Cheatham and Montgomery County the has been widely told, and after the story moves on to her basketball accomplishments it rarely returns to Cheatham County and the affect she has there still to this day. As residents of the county immediately west of Nashville know, it is not uncommon to see “Trish,” as she was known in high school, stopping in to visit with family or old friends and teammates.
It is this closeness with her hometown community that continues to help so many youth in the area aspire to be better people. As each of her athletic accomplishments over the years as a player and coach appeared in the local newspaper’s headlines, the stories of the life lessons she was teaching were passed on as well. The people who grew up with Summitt, and are now parents themselves, use stories of how her hard work as a kid on the farm and in school helped her go from the rural countryside off to college and eventually to becoming a household name across the country. Her story of success, and how she did it the right way, has become one of the best teaching tools the people of Cheatham County have ever had.
As this author can attest, having grown up only seven miles from Summitt’s childhood home and attended Cheatham County Central High School where the basketball teams play in Pat Head Summitt Gymnasium, her legacy was known very well to everyone. When you showed up as a kid in the early 90’s for youth basketball camp in the summers it was hard to find a participant, boy or girl, that didn’t come wearing a Lady Vols t-shirt. When asked what you wanted to do after high school, the near unanimous answer was “I’m going to be a Lady Vol and play for Pat.”
When people speak of what Summitt did for Title IX and women’s athletics as a whole, these basketball camp experiences I had as a young boy in the early 1990’s highlight just how much of an impact she truly had. In the era of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and The Dream Team, it was quite telling that there were youthful boys who were disappointed they couldn’t become a Lady Vol one day, but as a consolation maybe they could grow up and play in the NBA.
It isn’t just her childhood home where Summitt’s legacy leaves a strong trail of inspiration either. The same can be said in the small northwest Tennessee town of Martin. When Summitt first arrived as a freshman at The University of Tennessee at Martin, she was there to be a part of the first official women’s basketball team. On the court for the then-named Lady Pacers Summitt dazzled and set nearly every program record possible, many of which still remain among the top five to this day.
While her abilities and accomplishments on the court endeared her to so many during her time on campus, it is the way in which she has never forgotten her time there and those who helped her along the way that continues to endear her to so many still. In her years since leaving UT Martin as a student and embarking on her storied coaching career, Summitt continues to return to the UT Martin campus and give back. Not only giving back monetarily, but even more so by coming back in person and remaining close to those who helped her and the campus community that grew to love her. That has been most true with two women in particular, the now late Nadine Gearin, who was the first women’s basketball coach at UT Martin and Bettye Giles, who was the women’s athletic director.
It was those two who did everything they could for Summitt during her years at UT Martin to put her in the places she needed to be to succeed. They were the ones who drove her to tryouts for international competition, helped her adapt to college life away from home and eventually helped her land in Knoxville after her undergraduate days were done. Because of the efforts of these two pioneers in women’s athletics in Tennessee, it allowed Summitt to build the stage that she did nationally, and she never has forgotten that.
As Summitt’s star rose throughout the years, she always reminded people of all the hard work it took to get where she was. She reminded people that you don’t win with yourself, but rather you win with other people. That message is still heard loud and clear by the campus community at UT Martin.
In the spirit of love for one of its most treasured alums, the university unveiled this past October a statue of Summitt that sits just outside the basketball arena where the floor was named in her honor back in 1997. Appropriately, Summitt is joined by statues of Gearin and Giles completing an art piece called “Coaches.” It was named this to symbolize the obvious success the trio had in the coaching profession, but also to symbolize all the other life lessons they “coached” people through during their lives and continue to do so still.
For this author, I had the unique experience of not only growing up near Summitt’s childhood home but also attending UT Martin and then working with the women’s basketball program there for five seasons. During that time it was impossible to miss seeing the affect Summitt’s inspiration had on people, many of whom had never met her personally but felt as if they had been there with her from the start.
When former Tennessee Governor Ned Ray McWherter, who was from Dresden, Tenn., only a few miles from the UT Martin campus, was running for the state’s highest office his campaign used the slogan “He’s One of Us” to signify his connection to rural voters. That is the same connection that the people from Cheatham County and UT Martin feel for Summitt. To them, and to me as a resident of both, she is simply “one of us” and because of that we have great pride in her and draw inspiration from her daily.
Now many more people around the country who may not have previously been basketball fans or even heard of Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols are becoming widely aware of her through the work of the Pat Summitt Foundation. As it raises money to help bring awareness and find a cure for the terrible Alzheimer’s disease, she is now “one of us” to a whole new group of people who will be able to take solace in knowing that they have the best possible coach leading the way.