One can’t properly pen a series about the heritage of the University of Tennessee’s athletics program without paying tribute to Lady Vols basketball Coach Pat Summitt. I began this series with a goal to highlight unsung heroes from the University’s past; however, Summitt’s legacy extends far beyond this journalist’s earnest efforts towards continuity and fairly insists upon acknowledgement.
Her record as head coach includes eight NCAA Championships and 32 combined Southeastern Conference titles. For nearly 40 years, she dominated the basketball court, earning her the title of winningest coach in NCAA basketball history in both the men’s and women’s division. In 2000, she was honored as the Naismith Basketball Coach of the Century. Sporting News ranked her #11 on its list of the “50 Greatest Coaches of All Time” in 2009. Summitt was the only woman to make this list.
In 38 years, she never had a losing season and the accolades continued upon her retirement. In 2012, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama and received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2012 ESPY Awards.
As a sports enthusiast, I am in awe of her triumph on the court and her status in the record books. As a human being, I believe her accomplishments in the arena are a byproduct of her character, which includes her unwavering commitment to excellence, her dogged determination, and her indomitable spirit.
I attended a fundraiser Summitt hosted at her home on the bank of the Tennessee River in honor of her mother Hazel Head shortly after my second child was born. Mrs. Head told me of her daughter: “She’s consistent and a hard worker- we taught her that. As a child, she didn’t miss a day of school and always attended church.” Admittedly, those words were a bit lost on me at the time. As a young wife and new mother-of-two, I couldn’t recall whether or not I had brushed my teeth that morning and this sweet lady wanted to discuss consistency?
Later that afternoon, Coach Summitt inquired as to whether the month-old baby I held in my arms was yet sleeping through the night. To which I replied: “Not. at. all.”
Without a hint of empathy in her voice, she looked at me with those steely blue eyes and said matter-of-factly: “I know it’s better when they do, but you WILL get through it.”
Without another word, she turned on her heel and walked away.
Anyone else would have offended me at that time, in my ragged, sleep-deprived state, but that brief exchange gave me the courage to persevere through the challenges of early motherhood.
I am but one of thousands whose life has been touched in some way by the powerhouse that is Pat Summitt. While her resume is unparalleled and her winning record the very definition of success, her legacy lies in her innate ability to coach not just the game of basketball on which she has left a profound and indelible mark… but also the game of life.