Pat Summitt: An Original Legend

Today marked the tragic loss of a true Tennessee icon and sport legend Pat Summitt. She was a force for change and excellence, both on and off the court.

After years of battling one of the most deplorable diseases imaginable, Alzheimer’s, Pat Summitt passed away early this morning.

Since announcing her diagnosis in August 2011, Summitt has been fighting an incredibly difficult fight. Her early onset dementia progressed to the point that her family moved her to intensive care, and it never improved.

Nearly everyone who loves sports, and even those who don’t, have at the very least heard of who Pat Summitt was. She was the legendary head basketball coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols, a pioneer for both women’s basketball and women’s sports as a whole.

If you were to ask what people think of or see when they think about Pat Summitt, there would be hundreds if not thousands of differing answers. For me, it is the iconic image of her standing, arms crossed, with the stare that could freeze time.

She wasn’t always the living legend with a piercing glare, though.

Summitt was born in Clarksville, Tenn. in 1952 to Richard and Hazel Head. Although she had humble beginnings, by the age of 32, she had already become wildly successful and begun to help pave the way for women’s athletics. By 1984, Summitt had been an All-American at UT-Martin and was also the co-captain of the first ever U.S. Women’s National Basketball Team (they won the silver medal). She then was the coach of the U.S. Women’s team, which won an Olympic gold medal. Summitt was the first Olympian in U.S. history to win medals as both a basketball player and a coach.

Summitt is the winningest coach in college basketball history, she had 18 Final Four appearances, won eight National Championships, won a total of five gold medals as a player/coach of the U.S. Women’s National team across various competitions, a seven-time NCAA coach of the year and she was the Naismith Coach of the 20th Century.

But those are just the numbers, everyone knows them. Anyone can name off the incredible laundry list of stats and records that Summitt accrued in her legendary career, every Vol fan certainly can. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story, in fact, they don’t even scratch the surface of her greatness.

To truly understand and appreciate her legacy, one must look past the record books. It would be a damn-near impossible task to find someone who did more for their sport than Summitt.

She legitimized women’s basketball in a way no one thought possible, she revolutionized the way America looked at women’s athletics.

Before Summitt, women’s basketball was in its infancy, barely a blip on the national radar. There were no televised games, let alone nationally televised games, there weren’t huge attendance numbers or exposure and there was hardly any interest at all. Some weren’t even aware of the existence of women’s basketball – there were many places that did not have teams for women.

When she began coaching in 1974, women’s basketball was still using the six-on-six format, and the NCAA didn’t recognize it as a sanctioned sport.

No one cared.

But Pat made them care.

In her lengthy career, she brought women’s basketball to the forefront. There are countless nationally televised games every season, President Obama fills out an NCAA Women’s Tournament Bracket each year and Summitt’s Lady Vols regularly competed with the mens’ sports at UT in attendance and national exposure. Summitt, a women’s basketball coach at an SEC school, would consistently outshine the football team and gain more attention.

Imagine saying that back in the ‘70s when she began her career.

Summitt’s career began just two years after Title IX was implemented – a crucial time for female athletes. Women’s athletics needed a leader, a strong-willed, determined, “don’t take no for an answer” face to lead them from obscurity and into the mainstream.

Now, nearly 42 years after her coaching debut, women’s basketball has grown astronomically. ESPN broadcasts the NCAA Women’s Tournament every single year, a tournament which may not have been created for much longer without Pat.

There are millions of little girls who now grow up knowing that they can pursue whatever they wish, that they can be whatever they like and that success is not reserved for any specific group of people.

Summitt is in a statistical class of her own. She is also in a societal impact class of her own.

In the mid ‘70s, she inherited a barren wasteland. Women’s basketball, and women’s athletics as a whole, was a desert – devoid of resources, attention, interest and potential. Summitt willed that fruitless ground into a bountiful, healthy and constantly expanding land of opportunity.

Summitt was a Tennessee girl through and through. She was born here, she grew up here, she lived here and she changed the entire sports world in the U.S. from here.

Seeing someone from my hometown of Clarksville influence so many people and change so much about the way things work was inspiring. I have driven by her childhood home many times in my life, and seeing the birthplace of a legend is something unique that is difficult to describe adequately.

I am overwhelmingly proud that I was lucky enough to be alive during some of her incomparable career – it is something I will tell the future generations in my family about. Not only as someone who shares the same hometown as her, but also as someone who shares the same University and the same love for athletics. I thank Pat Summitt for everything she did for the University of Tennessee, for the sport of women’s basketball and for women’s athletics.

Today is one of the saddest days for a sports fan and for a Vol fan. There will never be another Pat Summitt. She was a one-of-a-kind person, a legend, an icon and a Vol for life.

Featured image by Jordan Dajani

Edited by Jordan Dajani

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Adam is the Assistant Sports Editor for the Tennessee Journalist and a Junior at UT. Most of his free time is spent watching sports, listening to good music, and enjoying life. If you wish to contact him, you can email him at amillike@vols.utk.edu, follow him on Twitter, @AdamMilliken14, or find him at https://www.linkedin.com/pub/adam-milliken/109/a89/a32.