By Luke Thomas
Former Tennessee Women’s Basketball coach Pat Summitt is regarded as one of, if not the best, basketball coaches of all time as she racked up 1,098 victories, 16 SEC Championships, and 8 National Championships over her 38-year career in Knoxville. Sunday marked the official beginning of “We Back Pat Week,” the weeklong event organized by The University of Tennessee and the South Eastern Conference (SEC) to honor Summitt’s legacy as well as to bring awareness to the horrifying disease of Alzheimer’s, which claimed Summit’s life in June of 2016. The 14 teams who are members of the South Eastern Conference are set to honor Summitt, as well as support the Pat Summitt Foundation, the foundation created in Summitt’s name to spread awareness of the horrific illness, during their home basketball games throughout the week.
Summitt was born in Clarksville, Tennessee on June 14, 1952, and grew up to form a passion for the game of basketball. As she grew older and improved her skills at the game, her family moved to Henrietta so she could play the game that she had grown to love, as her hometown did not have its own women’s basketball team. Summitt thrived in Henrietta, so much so that she would go on to play at the University of Tennessee-Martin, where she would earn All-American honors and graduate from the school in 1974. Later that year, she was announced as the new head coach for the Women’s Basketball team at the University of Tennessee at a time when her sport was not yet officially recognized by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
This time period was an extremely difficult moment for Summitt and for sports like Women’s Basketball in general. With a very harsh lack of funding, the coaches were severely underpaid, and in most cases only coached because of their love of the game. During her first season at the University of Tennessee, Summit only earned 250 dollars per month, making her annual salary a stunning 3,000 dollars per year. Summitt touched on this dark era of lower classification collegiate sports in an interview with Time Magazine in 2009, “One time, for a road game, we actually slept in the other team’s gym the night before. We had mats and (we) had our little sleeping bags. When I was a player at the University of Tennessee at Martin, we played at Tennessee Tech for three straight games, and we did not even wash our uniforms. We only had one set. We played because we loved the game and we didn’t think anything about it…”
Despite facing tough times from the economic aspect of the game, Summitt would quickly earn a reputation for pushing her players to their maximum potential. During an interview with ESPN, Holly Warlick, who played for Summit from 1976-1980 said, “She (Summitt) was tough on us because we were so close in age. She had to make sure that we understood that she was the coach and we were the players.” Warlick continued, “When I played for her, I thought, man, this lady is crazy. She’s just crazy. I would go out of the gym thinking ‘I don’t think I can do it.’” Summitt would later go on to explain the reason she pushed her players so hard after her retirement in 2012, “I didn’t mind holding people accountable… coaching was just my passion.” That passion was quickly converted into success when Summitt won her first SEC Championship, in both the regular season and tournament, in 1980.
Summitt then quickly helped transform Women’s Basketball into a sport that was recognized by the NCAA in 1982. Former Georgetown Men’s Basketball coach, John Thompson told ESPN, “She had so many obstacles to get them on television, (and) to get them recognized, to put women’s basketball in the forefront.” Summitt made Women’s Basketball into the sport it is today, if it weren’t for her, the sport would likely have never reached the heights it has today. Pat Summitt’s son, Tyler Summitt, commented on how his mom put women’s sports on the map as well, saying, “I don’t think that she planned to be a pioneer (for women’s sports), but I think she was comfortable being a pioneer,” in an interview with ESPN which was presented when Summitt won an ESPY Award in 2012.
Summitt’s legacy is one of success and change. She was able to push the sport that she fell in love with since her childhood onto the big stage and achieve the unthinkable, 8 National Championships, 18 Final Four Appearances, and 16 SEC Championships in both the regular season and the tournament. She is considered by many to be the greatest basketball coach of all time, and her legacy will live on for countless generations. From sleeping on the cold floor of the gymnasium at Tennessee Technological Institute to being called “the greatest of all time,” Summitt transformed the game of basketball in a way nobody could have ever imagined.
NOTE: We encourage all of our readers to honor Coach Summitt and bring awareness to Alzheimer’s by donating to the Pat Summitt Foundation. You can donate, or find other ways to help, by visiting patsummitt.org.