Pat Summitt was a force of nature on the basketball court. I always meant to write about her after she died back in June of 2016 but other ideas seemed to take precedents. This week I decided to try to tackle my desire to honour her. I guess the most challenging part is to try to do her justice in a short article.
When I think of Pat Summitt two images come to mind I think of her icy stare standing at half court with her arms crossed or I think about her yelling her head off on the sidelines into the court. Always dressed up in stylish trendy outfits for the times in both instances. She was an intense take no prisons type of lady and seemed to have an ability to bend other people into submission with a simple glance in their direction.
Over her career Pat’s accomplishments are many, some of which include:
- Amassing 1098 wins
- Winning 8 NCAA Division 1 Championships
- Earning Coach of the Year 7 times
- Winning 2 Olympic Gold Medals as a Coach
- Winning an Olympic Silver Medal as a Player
- Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012
Back in 1974, when Pat started coaching at the University of Tennessee she was a 22 year old graduate assistant. She took over the reigns of the team as the Head Coach when the previous coach suddenly quit the very next season. This meant that she wasn’t more than a year or two older than many of her players. I am not sure how many female coaches there would have been in women’s college basketball during that time but it certainly wasn’t many. Her monthly salary her first year was $250 and it was also her responsibility to wash the uniforms and drive the van during team trips. Pat was an enormous influence in changing the course of women’s basketball from early 1970’s until she passed in 2016.
One of the players Pat coached was Candace Parker who went on to play in the WNBA. In her book “Sum It Up” Pat regales the tail of benching Candace twice. The first time was because she wasn’t listening to the instructions and wasn’t denying the ball to the middle. Pat told her “You either stick to it, or you won’t play.” The team was trailing at the time but Pat didn’t care it was the principle of it that made her sit Candace. Pat mentioned that part of her wanted to see how her team would respond without their star player. The Lady Vols ended up losing that game in overtime. The second time Candace was benched was due to her missing curfew by 20 minutes. The team decided to bench her for the first half of the game.
Pat seemed to do everything she could at times to unsettle her players especially when they were too pleased with themselves. One time the girls arrived at practice and no basketballs were present. Pat made them climb all the way to the top of the bleachers and reflect on what it takes for their fans to get there to see them play. The time the fans take to get to the game and the money they spend to support what they were doing. She didn’t want them to take the support they had for granted and so it forced them to play with a sense of pride.
Those close to her often thought Pat was just interested in taking the proverbial snow globe and just shaking it up. According to her assistant coach that said this he thought she just wanted to see how the snowflakes would fall back down. Pat never wanted her team to get too comfortable. Her team was played with an edge and weren’t easily rattled.
Unfortunately, near the end of her career Pat was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers. This caused her to have to step down from her coaching duties and pass the reigns over to one of her long time assistants. During the process of being diagnosed those around her were focusing on all the things that she couldn’t do “can’t drive, can’t travel, can’t work,” and the list went on and on. Pat chose to change what the focus was by changing her attitude about it. She focused on realizing it would become what she made of it. She had known for sometime that something wasn’t quite right but she had been working her way through it for years. When it was time she faced Alzheimers head on like every other challenge that came up in her life. She didn’t resign her coaching role right away she decided to wind down her career instead.
Although there were symptoms and she had restrictions Pat still believed she could do two things well she was able to still teach and lead. She received word that Tennessee may not let her continue to be a part of the program which was a huge blow considering where she had taken it over the years. The Tennessee program she had built had been a labour of love she had put her heart and soul into for nearly 4 decades.
Pat had to realize that her battle with dementia wasn’t going to be a battle that she could win. She wasn’t going to be able to raise a banner to the rafters this time. The victory was going to be maintaining a small amount of say over her daily life and not feeling helpless on a day to day basis. It was going to be all about buying time as much as possible.
After meeting with the Tennessee executive a role was fashioned for Pat to remain part of the program for as long was she wanted to be there. The next step in making her condition known was to tell her team. She gathered her players around and made the announcement about her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. All of her players started to cry the last thing that Pat wanted was to lose sight of the goal or to have people feel sorry for her. She quickly said “Listen up, this is not a pity party. Hear me? We’re not going to cry over this. I’m still your coach.” She went on to explain that when receiving a diagnosis like this you don’t stop living. They were going to reorganize the staff and their goals would be the same going forward to “cut down the net”. She also assured them she wasn’t going to forget their names or forget to yell at them which definitely lightened the mood.
Pat’s declined was sudden. According to research once diagnosed a patient’s typical life expectancy is between 8 to 10 years and Pat has already been dealing with it silently for years before seeking treatment. The thing is that brain issues can be hidden because it is only the person who has the injury who can really truly understand the severity of it. There are many things that can be hidden until it gets too bad and the person isn’t able to conceal it anymore. Pat was brave for handling it the way she did. She rallied against it and didn’t go down easy. Her decline may have been rapid but it wasn’t for a lack of fight that it for sure. The courageous way she faced it head on is incredibly inspiring and that she didn’t give up her passion of coaching until she felt she had no other choice. That way of living is truly inspiring!
In my opinion, Pat didn’t just blaze the trail for women coaches she also created a map and paved the road. At least 25 of her former players have pursued careers in coaching and basketball management. Each one of the players she worked with over her 38 years of coaching are better people for having experienced her tough love no nonsense approach of getting things done. As mentioned before Pat was a force of nature and love was the counterbalance to every move she made. I have personally learned a great deal from her and think that she is one of those women that could get the best out of anyone she worked with. Rest in peace Pat Summitt.