Gone Too Soon
Even with UT’s football successes, Summitt was still on top
Death rears its ugly head at the cruelest of times.
It always has.
It always will.
Lately, Tennessee fans know that better than anyone, as basketball icon Pat Summitt passed away on June 28 due to complications from early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, at the age of 64.
The announcement was made early that warm Tuesday morning, as the sun glazed over the beloved Smoky Mountains of Rocky Top, and the news spread across the sports world like Summitt’s infamous icy stare in that it was freezing, demoralizing and, above all, disappointing.
Summitt, an eight-time National Champion, paved the way for women’s athletics not only as a coach, but as a philanthropist and leader for women across the world.
She donated basketballs to girls in India who yearned to learn the game Summitt herself loved, led the United States women’s team in the 1984 Olympics (not to mention playing her way to a silver medal ’76) and raised her only son, Tyler, in a basketball environment he grew to love and appreciate as his own.
A native of Henrietta, Tenn., Summitt plowed (literally) through a rough upbringing, working the land with her brothers, competing fiercely with them when such work was done and, finally, embarking on what would become a legendary basketball career when she began her freshman year at The University of Tennessee at Martin.
After playing in Martin under Betty Giles, Summitt was hired to a rather unexpected position, as she packed her bags and moved to Knoxville to lead what would, under her tutelage and rigorous leadership, become one of the greatest women’s basketball programs the world has ever known.
When Summitt began her head-coaching career at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, women’s basketball was virtually nonexistent as far as entertainment is concerned, and sports fans across the country gave nary a thought to the females whose rubber soles pounded across the echoing hardwood in the early 1970’s.
Summitt changed that, and she did so quickly.
From washing her players’ uniforms to driving the team bus to away games, Summitt began her head coaching career in more humble beginnings than many may even think possible, considering how far women’s basketball as a whole has come (and across what tumultuous terrain) in the past forty years.
But Summitt did it all, to the tune of a meager starting salary of $8,900.
Moreover, through her 38-year success story of a career at Tennessee, Summitt produced 21 All-Americans, 18 SEC championships and 1,098 victories, the most for any basketball coach at the Division-I level. And that’s without even going into her 100% graduation rate for players who stayed all four years.
Those, however, are just the statistics.
To really dig into the essence, the dirt of Pat Summitt’s career and life as a whole, one cannot merely flip through record books, although that would, admittedly, be an excellent place to start.
Instead, he or she must gaze deeply into the eyes and souls of all who loved Summitt for the beautiful person she continued to be, even into her last days as she lost her grip on such a well-lived life.
What Summitt’s career really comes down to is not the wins or the championships, but the lives she impacted, and the footprints she left for women everywhere to follow, as they find their own paths to success in what is now a much darker world without her.
That’s what her former players and assistants will say, at least, as they swap stories and laughs about the woman whose legacy will grace us all, even now that she is gone.
They will insist that the legacy of Pat Summitt rests not in Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena, nor on the court that bears her name.
Instead, it exists in the life of every player she ever coached, in the son who sat sheepishly at the end of his mother’s sideline during his younger years and in the thousands of other souls on whom Summitt made even the slightest impact.
For when Summitt made an impact, even in one simple, parting word to an adoring fan or small child, it left an imprint to be treasured forever.
As a child, I grew up watching Tennessee football.
I sat at the foot of my great-grandfather’s recliner, zipping my lip as I did so as not to disturb the ongoing game with my childish comments, and watched as orange-clad history unfolded before my eyes.
I gazed through the darkness and, later, through borrowed binoculars at Neyland Stadium, as Casey Clausen (my all-time favorite UT quarterback) overthrew the mighty Crimson Tide of Alabama.
Neyland Stadium itself shook in fear and, subsequently, celebration, as James Wilhoit’s field goal sailed through the uprights to beat Florida in 2004.
Finally, the joyous celebration of so very many melted into utter disbelief when an overturned call in the 2010 Music City Bowl left Volunteer fans everywhere screaming for that referee’s head.
Now, the Tennessee faithful look forward to Butch Jones’ 2016 campaign, praying all the while that God might grant but one season of vengeance for all the post-Fulmer years of strife and turmoil.
The point is, football has dominated the mindsets of many Vol fans for a long time now, at least when the leaves are burned in Tennessee orange and what some consider to be blood-curdling Alabama red.
The emotional roller-coaster these fans voluntarily ride every season sends them up, down and all around, eventually arriving at a nagging sense of regret, not to mention the longing for seasons that have since passed.
That is in the fall, but as the crisp weather gives way to light snowfall and chokingly cold breaths, something changes in the brisk mountain air. Or, it did before Summitt stopped coaching, at least.
The basketball-based excitement on Rocky Top stirred ever so slightly with the arrival of Bruce Pearl as the new men’s coach, but every year that Pat Summitt stepped on the sideline to lead her dominant Lady Vols, that same excitement roared its approval.
Why? The answer is quite simple, really.
Throughout its heavy, long-winded history, Tennessee football has brought seasons riddled with emotion and questions of whether or not the Vols could get it done on the field.
With Lady Vols basketball, however, and Summitt at the helm throughout its existence, the predictions were never questioned. The lopsided scores never brought more than one blink of the eye.
And by the final go-round in Summitt’s illustrious Tennessee career, fans had been used to such dominance for a long, long time.
Only recently, in fact, had they been forced—albeit, begrudgingly— to admit that the Lady Vols were no longer the only relevant team in women’s college basketball, as UConn and Baylor, among others, have clawed their way to the top.
But even the rise of other teams pays tribute to Summitt, to her unrelenting passion and determination to push the women’s game through every obstacle set in its way, until the final obstacle of her own life served as her ultimate Earthly demise.
It was on April 18, 2012, that Summitt’s career in Knoxville drew to an official close.
It was with great regret that she admitted that the dementia, which she battled with “fierce determination,” according to her son, Tyler, had begun to take its toll, and Summitt thought it best for what had so long been her team that she step down.
Heavy hearts and teary eyes blotted the room as Summitt announced her retirement, naming longtime assistant and friend Holly Warlick as her successor as head coach.
After the announcement, Summitt tugged a small, silver whistle out of her pocket, placing it around Warlick’s neck in visual representation of handing over the reins.
In the same hand as the whistle, it seemed that she gave Holly what had for so long been her livelihood, as a smile tinged with sadness creased the face of a legend.
It was then, too, that Summitt’s health began its slow creep downward, eventually transforming into the sad spiral that ended at the statue erected in her honor on Tennessee’s campus, as bouquets and basketballs sit today in memorial.
Summitt’s greatest on-court foe, Geno Auriemma, perhaps said it best, as her “indelible impact” on the game of basketball will send ripples through this sport for as long as it is played.
That is why, while Summitt’s years ended much too quickly than we all would have liked, her life as a whole might be counted as that 1,099th victory.