One of the few modern developments worth applauding has been the mainstreaming of women’s sports. After Billie Jean King and Chris Evert, no one was more important to that process than Pat Head Summitt, who just passed away, at 64, from complications of early onset Alzheimer’s.
She was hired as the University of Tennessee’s basketball coach in the fall of 1974. She was 22, fresh off an All-American senior season at UT-Martin. In the early years, she drove the team van, sometimes to places where they slept on the floor of the opponent’s gym because they couldn’t afford a motel.
These days, no major college women’s team sleeps on anybody’s floor. Thank her for that.
She won in her first season and, thirty-eight years later, she won in her last. In between she won in every single other season. There were eight national championships, an Olympic Gold Medal (back when American dominance of international women’s basketball was far from assured–thank her for making that an ongoing reality, too) and a record number of wins overall. Along the way she graduated one hundred percent of her players.
And all of that paled next to the endless, incalculable inspiration, typified by Kate Fagan’s fine tribute at ESPN’s website, which I recommend in the strongest terms.
Near the end of her career, cut short a few years ago by the diagnosis of the disease that took her today, The Sporting News ranked the top fifty coaches across the history of all sports. Exactly one woman made the list, at #11. If you followed sports even a little in the last half-century, and somebody told you there was only one, you would not have needed to be told who.
Like I always say: When there’s only one of something, there are reasons. In this case, chalk it up to the fire within. Not just the ability to coach a sport, however considerable that was, or even the most extraordinary capacity to lead, but to imagine that every single person who plays for you really and truly matters. You do that, and there will be a reason why every single person who played for you across four decades cries when you die, something that probably could not be said of any of the other forty-nine coaches on that list because, frankly, coaching at that level isn’t really supposed to be like that.
Thank her for proving that idea wrong, too.
Sounds like dedication time, so here’s from the Maryville in me to the Clarksville in her: