Shown here with son Tyler after winning one of her eight national championships, Pat Summitt reached heights in life that immortals are resigned to aspiring for. (Photo by the Tampa Bay Times)
BY RAY FLORIANI
Think of Pat Summitt, and the mind’s eye projects the image of her triumphantly raising the nets, all smiles after capturing yet another national championship. We have seen it through numerous media, and it remains so vivid in our consciousness.
Pat Summitt passed away peacefully Tuesday morning. Loved ones were nearby, and those loved ones included family and former players. To Summitt, though, the young ladies she coached and mentored WERE part of her extended family.
Pat Summitt’s first game as a head coach was on December 7, 1974, a loss as Mercer prevailed, 84-83. She had signed on as a graduate assistant. When the head coach left before the season, the 22-year-old Summitt, barely older than her players, was promoted to the head coaching position. These were the dark ages, the formative years of women’s college basketball. There was no recognition by the NCAA. Her salary was a princely $250 a month. Her duties included doing team laundry and driving the team van.
Win number one came over a month later, a 69-32 triumph over Middle Tennessee State on January 10, 1975. Her first group in Knoxville finished 16-11. She would never have a losing season.
Her coaching career was incredibly outstanding, so much so that some fail to realize Pat Head (her maiden name) was a standout basketball player. She was a star at Tennessee-Martin, and later played on the 1975 Pan American title team and won a silver medal in the 1976 Olympics. In fact, year two in Knoxville saw her fashion a 16-11 record while studying for her Masters in physical education and training for the Olympic Games.
Her storied career included eight NCAA titles, an Olympic gold medal in 1984, as well as 16 SEC regular season and tournament titles. Eight times, she was chosen SEC Coach of the Year, and on seven occasions, NCAA Coach of the Year. Her legacy transcends a career of 1098 victories.
Pam Chvotkin, a sports production coordinator and Tennessee alum, was an undergrad. She was helping her dad, Rich, on one of his Georgetown radio broadcasts at Madison Square Garden. It was January 2006, and the three of us engaged in pregame chatter and coffee before the Hoyas took on St. John’s. On hearing she worked as a student intern in the Tennessee athletic department, my first question to Pam was if she was involved with the Lady Vols basketball program. She was, and spoke highly of Summitt. “Coach Summitt has such a commanding presence,” Pam said. “She can walk through the athletic department hallway and you can hear a pin drop. She just has that presence about her.”
That presence. Coaches like the late Dean Smith and Bobby Knight had it. Walk into their postgame pressers, and you could sense the aura they had and attention that was commanded. Summitt was the same. I had the good fortune to cover a few of her games. Postgame, you wanted to hang on every word, a lesson in basketball 101. When her voice went up a decibel or two to emphasize something like, “we did not rebound well and will address that in practice,” you would literally feel for those young ladies in her charge. The next practice would not be easy, nor end until they rebounded the right way. The Summitt way.
The late Bonita Spence addressed officials at an officiating camp in the fall of 2000. Her topic was coach-official relations. Spence was a veteran, but recalled as a relatively young (experience-wise) Division I official, she was assigned to a game in Knoxville. “This was Tennessee, the Lady Vols, the crowd, and the matriarch of women’s basketball, Pat Summitt,” Spence recalled. “I was nervous to say the least.” She was paired with two veterans. In the traditional pregame greeting of the coaches, Summitt knew Spence was the rookie among the three. “She went out of her way to be cordial and put me at ease,” Spence noted. The crew did a solid job. Tennessee won, but the point was Summitt, who could be rather tough on those in stripes, read the situation and used her outstanding‘people skills to ensure the entire crew was ready to work as a team.
A tireless worker, Summitt was in virtual perpetual motion until the time the dreaded Alzheimer's disease afflicted her roughly five years ago. Given her phenomenal success, she remained a student of basketball, constantly studying the game to increase a basketball knowledge arguably second to none.
To little surprise, forty-five of her former players and/or assistants went into coaching, most notably Sylvia Hatchell and Carolyn Peck. Both captured NCAA titles, Hatchell at North Carolina while Peck guided Purdue.
This past Sunday, on a day the New York Liberty celebrated their 20th anniversary, those in attendance directed their thoughts and prayers to the ailing Summitt. Swin Cash of the Liberty was almost moved to tears discussing Summitt. Cash was part of those UConn-Tennessee battles. She was a Huskie, but still respected and admired what Summitt did not only during her UConn days, but for decades of dedication to the game.
Diana Taurasi of the visiting Phoenix Mercury and another UConn standout, told women’s basketball guru Mel Greenberg about playing in an AAU tournament in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and knowing from the crowd reaction that Summitt entered the gym. Once again, that distinctive presence.
Finally, UConn mentor Geno Auriemma told how Summitt and Tennessee shaped his program, not by simply competing against and eventually defeating the Lady Vols, but rather a case of emulating them. From his earliest days in Storrs, Auriemma utilized Summitt’s philosophy and program blueprint as a model for building the juggernaut in place at UConn today.
UConn-Tennessee was a Hatfields vs. McCoys of the women’s game. To hear the praise of Summitt by those who were on the UConn side of those battles speaks volumes, a true testimony to the respect they had for Summitt, a relentless competitor and contributor to the game in general.
Candace Parker. Tamika Catchings. Chamique Holdsclaw. Kara Lawson. The list of those to don the Tennessee orange goes on. The packed Thompson-Boling Arena, the championship banners, the almost endless litany of accolades. All part of the Pat Summitt legacy.
In the final analysis, she was a teacher, her classroom the 94-by-50 court. She imparted life lessons before the term became a catchy phrase.
Pat Summitt left us too soon. The lessons she imparted, the contributions and everything she embodied will continue to remain with us.
We can all say thank you to Coach Summitt.