Pat Summitt's legacy as champion of female sports will forever endure

Dan WetzelColumnist
Yahoo Sports

In 1974, two years after Title IX passed, yet decades before it stopped being ignored, Pat Summitt was named the head basketball coach at the University of Tennessee.

She was 22. She got the job because she'd just become a grad assistant, the previous coach quit and there really wasn't anyone else who wanted the position. The salary was $3,000 a year. Duties included driving the team van, washing uniforms and sweeping the practice floor, which was available around men's intramural schedules.

The daughter of a disciplined dairy farmer who believed hard work yields opportunity, the younger sister of three older brothers who never gave her an inch in backyard games, she saw in Knoxville something special. "Just call me Pat," she told her team, because some were no younger than her.

Pat Summitt changed the course of women's sports during her time as Tennessee's coach. (AP)
Pat Summitt changed the course of women's sports during her time as Tennessee's coach. (AP)

Eight NCAA championships, 1,098 victories and incalculable lives impacted later, Pat was still how she was referred. On Tuesday, Pat Summitt passed away at the age of 64. In August 2011, she announced she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.

Pat Summitt is one of the greatest pioneers women's athletics will ever know, a force of will wrapped in Southern charm, a coach of such brilliance she did more to legitimize the sport of women's basketball – and, in turn, set a tone of seriousness for all other female sports – than perhaps any other person.

There was never anything second-class about Summitt. Her teams were ferocious, tenacious, disciplined and just a lot of fun to watch. At a time when women's athletics were brushed aside, if not overlooked all together, there was Summitt and the Lady Vols, impossible to discount. That she did it at a large university in the South during an era before the NCAA even ran a national tournament furthered the impact. At the time, the powers that be were smaller schools, such as Immaculata College.

Summitt forever credited her father, Richard, for shaping her. He worked tirelessly on a 1,000-acre farm outside Clarksville, Tenn., and could be so tough on her that she clashed at his relentlessness and struggled with his demands until later realizing it was all out of a love of maximizing her potential.

Pat Summitt brought strength and intensity to the sideline. (AP)
Pat Summitt brought strength and intensity to the sideline. (AP)

"My father, to a great extent, made me who I am," Summitt wrote in her autobiography, "Reach for the Summit." "His peculiar combination of love and discipline was hard to take, but in the end I was grateful for it. He gave me strength."

There could be no greater gift than strength, she came to believe. Pass that along, in anyone, but women in particular, and it will never cease to stop returning dividends. Strength creates self-determination, and then suddenly everything is possible.

Her three older brothers were all exceptional athletes, who would play in college. Pat was just as talented. Often in part because she dealt with the same expectations as her brothers, there was no soft handling Pat, or her younger sister, just because they were girls. (Pat was a standout at UT-Martin, when there were no scholarships, and also played for USA Basketball.)

The tone was tough and not always fun, but when Richard changed Pat's high school because her local one didn't offer basketball, it was also a signal that what she was doing carried value.

Beyond all the victories, beyond all the championships, beyond all the sold-out arenas and the way she helped turn NCAA women's basketball into big business, projecting out her father's mantra was Summitt's most significant accomplishment.

This is important. This matters. We demand everything … first from ourselves, but then from everyone else. We apologize for nothing.

She was a taskmaster, seeking out the toughest players in America and then making them tougher. There were still large swaths of the country that didn't believe women could exert themselves fully, where high school girl's basketball was six-on-six and, to stave off exhaustion, players couldn't cross center court.

Summitt, and others, scoffed at the implication. Her teams were so impressive it wasn't long before fans wanted her to coach the Tennessee men's team and instill a bit of that same mentality in them. She famously declined, believing it wasn't a step up, just a step sideways.

Tennessee won 1,098 games and eight national titles under Pat Summitt. (AP)
Tennessee won 1,098 games and eight national titles under Pat Summitt. (AP)

And she did it by fighting a stereotype that women interested in sports were just grown-up tomboys or so rough around the edges they belied feminine ideals. It shouldn't have been that way, but it was. Those were the times.

Summitt, no matter her intensity, took the sidelines in style and fashion, a tall and graceful and commanding presence. She disarmed with a personality as folksy and warm off the court as icy on it. She was near impossible not to like.

The Lady Vols were regulars at the Final Four, a familiar presence for casual fans to rally around. From 1976 to 2011, every player who stayed four years reached at least one Final Four. The rivalries she built up, especially with Geno Auriemma and the University of Connecticut, helped propel the sport to unthinkable heights.

The vision of Summitt and her team rippled across the country. Other colleges tried to match her, especially in the SEC. High school kids pushed harder and harder to play for her. Coaches at all levels had an image to sell to skeptical administrators and fans. This is big time. Let us be big time.

The United States dominates in women's team sports these days – from basketball to soccer to softball and so on. Part of that is Title IX, which offered opportunities to American girls. It was also in part because of Summitt, who made being as aggressive as men a positive, who preached that women could be teammates, not just seen as rivals, who couldn't accept anything less than throwing your hair in a ponytail and playing full-throttle.

There will never be another like Pat Summitt, in part because there will never need to be another like Pat Summitt. One of our saddest diseases took her too early, took her at a time when her wisdom and perspective and presence could have continued to inspire even after she retired from coaching.

That's our loss. Our gain, America's gain, was this Tennessee farm kid who saw no difference between boys and girls sports, saw no reason why women should accept anything less than everything. Saw at age 22 nothing in front of her but a chance to work hard and create greatness in herself and others every day of her life.

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