Blessed with her steely stare and the innate knowledge of the game she loved and the 161 players she would coach, Pat Summitt and Tennessee served as the singular platform upon which women’s college basketball was built for two decades.
She was the game and game was her, intertwined almost from the moment she became coach of the Lady Vols in 1974. You couldn’t beat Tennessee. You could only aspire to.
On Tuesday morning the Associated Press reported that Summitt, 64, who led the Lady Vols to eight NCAA titles in her 38 seasons and whose victory total of 1,098 is still the most in the history of the game for men or women, had died, surrounded by her family and friends.
Summitt, a worthy UConn adversary who Geno Auriemma praised for making him better coach, died four years after stepping down as Tennessee’s coach in 2012 after announcing her diagnosis of early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.
Her family had released a statement on Sunday morning acknowledging how the previous days had been difficult for her and that those who loved her were gathering by her side at the retirement center where she has been living.
“It’s one of those sad things that all of us, as we get older, we deal with on a more regular basis than we want to,” Auriemma said. “There’s a lot of great memories that I take away from [the rivalry]. I wish she was around to enjoy those memories. I think you appreciate them more as you get older.”
Auriemma said he has relayed messages to Summitt in recent years, through those close to the former Vols coach. He looks back fondly on the games between the teams.
“We had an opportunity, I think, to kind of shape the landscape of women’s basketball, the two of us,” Auriemma said. “She did her part and I did my part. It didn’t necessarily go over well with everybody else, but that’s OK. That’s how things grow.”
Auriemma said he recalls a year when coaches were polled about who they thought would win the NCAA Tournament. Many said they were hoping for anyone but UConn and Tennessee.
Candace Parker and Tamika Catchings, WNBA stars and former Tennessee All-Americans, left their teams for a brief time to pay respect to the coach they loved.
Summitt’s final season was 2011-12. On Aug. 23, 2011, Summitt revealed that she’s been diagnosed with early onset dementia, “Alzheimer’s Type,” after the doctors at the Mayo Clinic examined her. She was just 59. Instead of immediately stepping away, she coached the Lady Vols one more season and they finished the year with a 27-9 overall record and carried home her final title as 2012 SEC Tournament Champions. UT finished the season losing to No. 1-ranked Baylor, battling for a spot in the NCAA Final Four.
Since that point, she had held the position of head coach emeritus to her successor, Holly Warlick, one of her former players, and she was physically able attended nearly every home game and practices.
After her diagnosis, support immediately began to flow to her. A “We Back Pat” campaign went viral and money began to pouring into Summitt-picked organizations, Alzheimer’s Tennessee and the University of Tennessee Medical Center.
In November 2011, Summitt announced the formation of her foundation, the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund, with the proceeds going toward research. The SEC and its member institutions donated $100,000. And in June of that year, NASCAR driver and Knoxville native Trevor Bayne announced he would be driving a “We Back Pat” themed car in the Aug. 24 Nationwide Series Food City 250 race in Bristol to help raise awareness for the foundation.
And now, The Pat Summitt Alzheimer’s Clinic is scheduled to open at the University of Tennessee medical center in December.
“She has taught all of us how to [fight the disease] with courage,” former Tennessee women’s athletic director Joan Cronan said at a 2015 charity event honoring Summitt. “She’s done that from Day One. It’s been about [how] we can find a cure for this disease, and she has done it facing it straight-on and she’s done it giving back as she always has.”
Patricia Sue Head was born in Clarksville, Tenn., one of her parents’ five children. But when she was ready to play basketball there were no teams for girls in her hometown so her family moved to nearby Henrietta so she could play.
Summitt played at the University of Tennessee-Martin, where she became an All-American.
Summitt was hired as Tennessee’s coach in 1974, earning $250 a month and washing the player’s uniforms, two years before she was co-captain of the silver medal winning U.S. Olympic team.
In a 2009 interview with Time Magazine, Summitt talked about the experience.
“I had to drive the van when I first started coaching,” Summitt said. “One time, for a road game, we actually slept in the other team’s gym the night before. We had mats, we had our little sleeping bags.”
One decade later, she would go on to coach the 1984 Olympic team to a gold medal.
Summitt was married to R.B. Summitt from 1980 to 2007 and they had one son, Tyler, the former women’s basketball coach at Louisiana Tech
Of course, throughout the later stages of her college coaching career, everything all of her professional accomplishments were soon measured alongside Auriemma’s UConn program.
What soon morphed into the greatest rivalry in the history of women’s college basketball – and one of the greatest in all of college sports — got its start on Jan. 16, 1995 when the Huskies knocked off Summitt’s Lady Vols at Gampel Pavilion to become the nation’s top-ranked team. Three months later, UConn defeated Tennessee again to win the first of its 11 national championships.
Summitt and Auriemma could not have been more different and soon their personalities clashed, eventually causing Summitt to put an end to the series, accusing UConn of improprieties relating to the recruitment of Maya Moore.
Aside from her relationship with Auriemma, Summitt cultivated deep ties with just about every major college coach in Division I. Some she touched directly, others just with a kind gesture.
Summitt was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, the first time she was eligible for the Hall’s ballot.
She became just the fourth women’s basketball coach to earn Hall of Fame honors at the time. A little more than a year earlier, Summitt was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in the 1999 inaugural class.
Summitt led her teams to the Final Four of women’s college basketball (both AIAW and NCAA) 22 times in 38 years.
Eleven of her last 18 teams advanced to the Final Four, with the 1987, 1989, 1991, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2007 and 2008 teams winning the NCAA title.