When I heard yesterday that Pat Summitt was stepping down as head coach of the women's basketball team at the University of Tennessee, an overwhelming sadness washed over me. Yes, I knew this news was coming someday. When Coach Summitt announced eight months ago that she had early onset dementia/Alzheimer's, it was only a matter of time before she would have to resign.
I was saddened for the players on her team. I was saddened for all the women that she had coached over her 38-year career. I was saddened for all the players that she would never get to coach. As someone who grew up playing high school basketball in the neighboring state of Georgia, I was fully aware of the legend of Pat Summitt as a young girl. Watching women's basketball on television, at the time it seemed Tennessee won the national championship virtually every year (they won nine).
Summitt removing herself from the day-to-day running of the team was inevitable. Lapses of memory, physical weakness, and a deterioration of her once fiery persona made it clear that Alzheimer's was winning this battle in her body. It was heartbreaking watching her in the NCAA tournament this year, remembering how different she used to be.
Ultimately, the saddest part of this is that Summitt's wealth of knowledge of basketball and how to develop the character of young women will be lost as the disease continues its attack on her brain. Thankfully, she has passed along a great deal of that to her long-time assistant coach , Holly Warlick, who will be replacing her as head coach. She has also imparted a lifetime of wisdom upon her son, Tyler, who hopefully will carry on his family legacy of outstanding coaching at his new position as assistant coach for the women's program at Marquette. Pat Summit, however, is an original, and there will never be another coach like her.
Typically, when one hears or thinks about great basketball coaches, they are men coaching men's basketball teams. Summitt is far and away the greatest female women's basketball coach there has ever been or will ever be, but in my opinion she is the greatest college basketball coach ever. She modernized a women's game that was still playing 6-on-6 and half-court when she first started coaching. She insisted that her players train and prepare like the men. Her players were tough and physical. She was a hard-nosed coach who demanded the best from the best. She built Tennessee into a perennial national power in the late 1970's and kept them there for almost 30 years. Who else has had that level of success for that long?
Her effect, however, reaches outside of Tennessee and college basketball. That attitude shift that girls were athletes and could be trained as hard as the boys was carried down to my coach and team in Georgia. We trained just as hard as the boys (possibly harder). We were a fast-break, hard-nosed defensive team. Our coach, just like Pat Summitt, instilled in us that our potential was limitless. I didn't play organized basketball beyond high school, but the lessons learned from a demanding coach have endured for over 20 years.
The legend and effect of Pat Summitt goes far beyond her coaching career at Tennessee. It involves a couple of generation of women who are far better people because she believed that girls (and women) can be as good as they want to be. That's a pretty great legacy to have, and Summitt deserves every bit of accolade that she is getting now because of it.
Julie is a Featured Contributor and grew up playing basketball in northern Georgia. Although she loved basketball as a child and played constantly, there wasn't much college interest in a 5'7" power forward who had a three inch vertical leap and wasn't particularly fast.