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Pat Summitt: A Remarkable Tennessee Tenure on and off the court


On the occasion of Pat Summitt's retirement as Tennessee women's basketball coach, Summitt's long-time friend and co-author Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post celebrates the remarkable legacy of a national treasure.

Pat Summitt has always torn down with one hand and built up with another. She has torn down conventional scripted ideas of acceptable conduct for women, what they can and can’t do, and built up a different version with her other hand. She tore down young women and built them back up into stronger ones. “You can’t say ‘can’t’ to me,” she liked to tell them.

Summitt has accepted the word “can’t” in only one instance in her life: On April 18 she was forced by her diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s to step aside as the women’s basketball coach at Tennessee after 38 years and eight national championships. She can’t add any more official tallies to her stunning record, which will rest at 1,098 victories — the all-time record in NCAA history male or female — and only 208 losses. But typically, Summitt is more focused on what she can do: she will remain as “Head Coach Emeritus,” and continue to teach what she has always taught best: not simply how to win, but how to use basketball as an exercise in self will. “How to commit,” she says.

She committed. She committed for the sake of commitment back when there was nothing to gain but a little part-time pay and pride in a job well done. She was just a 22-year-old graduate student when she was hired to run Tennessee’s women’s program — the same age as some of the seniors on the team, which tells us a little bit about the university’s commitment to the game at the time. Pat had never run a practice. “I was absolutely terrified,” she remembers.

She was self-taught, a farm girl who learned the game in a hay barn with a plywood backboard. As a grad student she had to take four classes toward her master’s degree, teach four more classes, and she was also in training for the 1976 Olympics; she would captain the USA team to a silver medal. In between those obligations, she drove the team van, washed the uniforms, and helped the janitor set up the folding chairs in Tennessee’s old Alumni Gym, a ramshackle little place that was so dark she said she needed “a miner’s lamp” to see the lines on the floor. At the beginning, there were crowds of only 50 or a hundred spectators watching an overworked young woman trying to build a better life for herself and other young women like her. The goal wasn’t to build a future dynasty, “It was to survive a year,” she says.

She had so little funding that, on one occasion, the team slept on mats in the other team’s gym the night before a game. “We played anybody, just about anywhere, any time,” she says. She never complained, or railed. Instead, she solved her own problems. She stood on chairs in the student center and huckstered, and she rustled up bake sales for cash to buy uniforms.

By her second season she was drawing 1,500 to a game, and by her third the Lady Vols were national contenders who played before 5,000. The crowds kept growing with the victories. Then the national championships started coming, and something remarkable happened.

It was nothing less than the overthrow of male ownership of the sport. Summitt seized the ideal of physical excellence as a method of self-fashioning — the great male dream of athletics as a route to confidence, success and authority — and handed it over to her young women. The crowds grew and roared their approval, and the banners fluttered from the rafters — 1987, 1989, 1991, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2007, 2008 — spanning decades and technological eras from TV to the Internet age, until there was no more glass ceiling for Summitt and the Lady Vols. The winner’s podium was utterly genderless. Pat Summitt had passed her own personal Equal Rights Amendment. And among the many things she had won was a contract with the university that said she would never, ever be paid less than her male counterpart.

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By the time she was done the President of the United States had hung a Medal of Freedom around her neck and pronounced her a figure of historical import, a national treasure who had changed merely … well, everything.

Fifteen years ago, I began work with Summitt on her principles-of-success book, Reach for the Summit. We had a conversation that never made it into print, but one that remains the most revealing thing this modest yet most important champion has ever said about herself.

I asked, “Are you a feminist?”
She said, “No, I’m not a feminist.”
“Well, why aren’t you?”
She said, “I’m not a sign-carrier. I don’t go around protesting. I don’t stand out on a sidewalk holding a sign.”
“Fair enough. But what are you?”
“I don’t know what to call myself.”
I said, “I think I know what to call you.”
She said, “What?”
I said, “You’re a subversive.”
She said, “That’s exactly right.”
And then she threw back her head and roared with laughter.

On the day that Pat retired, commentators across the country struggled to articulate the scale of her accomplishments. But the most eloquent and articulate tribute of all came from a simple fan. His name was Dan Donovan, and he was a creative director at an ad agency. He wrote an Internet posting that made its way to various outlets and wound up on my screen. I repeat it here, because it says everything about Pat Summitt that needs to be said.

I’m nobody significant. I have almost no Twitter followers. I don’t blog. I’m just a guy raised by good parents who believed in and appreciated the good that people do. … At some point in my life I learned about Pat Summitt. I followed her on ESPN. I read the articles about her and her teams, and I’ve developed a long appreciation for what she has accomplished. I never hung her poster on my wall as a kid, but I was a fan. I am a fan. I have been blown away by the way she has built remarkable teams and helped produce even more remarkable women.

I’m going to be a father in three months. We’re having a girl. And like many parents, I’ve allowed myself to dream about my little girl one day becoming a great scholar, or athlete or contributor to society. But as I watch Coach Summitt leave (and I completely understand why), I can’t help but think that all I really want is for my daughter to one day learn from a woman like her. A woman who won against odds, lost gracefully and made being great and being modest at the same time seem not only possible but reasonable.

I know Coach Summitt will go on. This is not a eulogy. This is a thank you note. And a promise that even the young girls who grow up miles away from her legacy will always know her name, and more importantly, her story.

Good luck, Coach.

Pat Summitt: By the Numbers
Win-Loss Record: 1,098–208
SEC Championships: 16
National Championships: 8
Coach of the Year Awards: 7
Olympic Medals: Gold (’84), Silver (’76)