We recognize that the following has nothing to do with hockey, but as Penalty Box Radio is based in Tennessee, we feel that we need to recognize the legacy of this remarkable woman as we are some of her own.
For the first time in 64 years, the world is without Pat Summitt.
Pat Summitt’s legacy as a basketball coach is unarguable: eight national championships, eighteen Final Four appearances, sixteen SEC championships, 1,098 wins, one Olympic gold medal. She’s in the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, the International Basketball Hall of Fame, and the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. In 2012, President Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
One could write an entire book just listing off her on-the-court accomplishments – and there were several. Perhaps her greatest accomplishment, however, was as a person. Pat Summitt transcended her sport. She was a pioneer for women’s sports in a way that so many before her could not be and so many after her tried to follow.
It says something about her legacy that she’s known as “Pat Summitt” and not “Coach Summitt” or “Summitt”. If she’s ever referred to as a single name, it’s “Pat”. I never met the woman, I never saw her coach in real life, but I was always on a first name basis with her. Growing up as a boy in the state of Tennessee, I never realized that there was a vast chasm between men’s and women’s athletics. That realization didn’t come until I was older, when I really started to understand the impact Pat Summitt not only had on Tennessee athletes, not only on basketball players, but on women as a whole. Her impact was one of a human scale.
When I was six years old, in the first grade, I first heard her name – it was during the era when she went by her full name, Pat Head Summitt. I didn’t understand what a coach did – my only experience with coaches were that they made you run around a lot at soccer games. Pat certainly made her players run around a lot, but perhaps what differentiated her from so many other coaches is that she also made sure they succeeded. She coached at the University of Tennessee for nearly 40 years and every single player that completed their eligibility under her graduated with a degree.
In the 1970’s, Title IX opened the door for women’s athletics in the United States. Pat Summitt became the head coach at Tennessee in 1974, taking over after serving as an assistant. During this time, Pat drove the Lady Vols to away games herself in a van, earning $250 a month, and washing the jerseys herself.
The NCAA did not sponsor women’s sports until the 1980’s. Prior to this, the Lady Vols played under the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). Under Pat Summitt, the Lady Vols reached four AIAW Final Fours. In 1982, when the NCAA finally sponsored a women’s tournament, the Lady Vols made the first one there.
In 1984, USA Basketball named her the head coach for the Olympics in Los Angeles. In their prior attempt in 1976 (the United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics), the United States had taken home silver. However, under Pat Summitt’s leadership, the United States took their first ever gold medal in women’s basketball, thoroughly annihilating their competition. The United States has won every gold medal except for one since then.
In 1987, the Lady Vols won the first women’s national championship in team history. It was the first championship in a varsity sport for Tennessee since a swimming and diving title in 1978. It was the first championship in a “ball” sport for Tennessee since General Neyland led the football team to the 1951 National Championship. Pat Summitt was not only putting the Lady Vols on the Map, she was putting the University of Tennessee on the map, and, by virtue of that, putting the state of Tennessee on the map. The Lady Vols won again in 1989 and 1991 before pulling off the threepeat from 1996-1998.
The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame opened in Knoxville largely due to the following that the Lady Vols had gathered during Pat Summitt’s time at Tennessee. She had not only transformed Tennessee into a powerhouse, she had transferred Knoxville into arguably the women’s basketball capital of the world. Unsurprisingly, she was in the first class. in 1999. In 2000, she was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach in her first year of eligibility, only the third woman so honored.
Pat Summitt coached a lot of teams to a lot of wins. In fact, in 2005, she coached the Lady Vols to their 880th win under her, which allowed her to pass North Carolina’s Dean Smith as the winningest coach in the history of the NCAA. She still had two more National Championships in her, as Tennessee won the 2007 and 2008 national titles.
She became the first NCAA coach to 1,000 wins in 2009, with Tennessee marking the occasion by rechristening the court at Thompson-Boling Arena as “The Summitt”.
When they announced that Bridgestone Arena would be hosting the Women’s Final Four in 2014, I – as well as many others – hoped that somehow Pat could hang on long enough to have one last triumph in front of her home state. It didn’t happen.
“God doesn’t take away things to be cruel,” she wrote in her 2014 autobiography, Sum It Up. “He takes things away to make room for other things. He takes things away to lighten us. he takes things away so we can fly.”
She loved her sport, she loved her players, she loved her school, and she loved her state. Pat Summitt could have run for Governor of Tennessee and won in a landslide. Her records on the court make her a legend, but the way she carried herself, what she fought against, her courage, and her passion for bettering the lives of others are the things that make her a truly special person.
She had to step down in 2012 due to the terrifying and brutal disease that would take her from this earth prematurely, she finished her career with 1,098 wins. She is still the winningest basketball coach in Division 1.
That record exemplifies Pat Summitt’s legacy.
She is the winningest basketball coach, not women’s basketball coach. There is no qualifier. Pat Summitt could easily have coached a men’s team if she wanted to – supposedly Tennessee offered the job to her twice – but she knew that her legacy was in building a sport and shaping young women’s lives.
That was Pat Summitt.
She didn’t fight for her legacy, she simply took it.