Linda Robertson

Pat Summitt’s legacy: 1,098 wins, countless women empowered

Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt talks to her players during the team's practice session on March 19, 2004 in Tallahassee, Fla.
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt talks to her players during the team's practice session on March 19, 2004 in Tallahassee, Fla. TNS

Pat Summitt was known for “the look” — a glare that could split atoms. She stomped on the sideline. She set up garbage cans at punishing practices so players could vomit into them. The athletes she coached were equally intense.

Thanks to Summitt, it became acceptable for women — on the field of play and in the boardroom — to want to win as badly as men wanted and fought to win. Fierce competitiveness was not solely a masculine trait.

Summitt died Tuesday morning at age 64 in the state where she spent her entire life, Tennessee. She died of complications from early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, the disease that forced her to retire from coaching the Tennessee women’s basketball team in 2012.

Summitt is the winningest coach in Division 1 college basketball history with a record of 1,098-208. In her 38-year career she won eight national championships, including three in a row from 1996 through 1998. She led the Volunteers to 18 NCAA Final Fours.

Only UCLA men’s coach John Wooden, with 10 titles, and Connecticut women’s coach Geno Auriemma, who won his 11th in April, have won more championships.

But beyond the numbers, Summitt will be remembered for elevating the women’s game on the court and gender equity off it.

She was the Queen Victoria of basketball, powerful and empowering at a time when women weren’t supposed to possess power.

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The term “pioneer” is applied too readily, but Summitt was a true trail blazer. She belongs on the list of women unafraid to shatter the glass ceiling, including Sojourner Truth, Susan Anthony, Coretta Scott King, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Billie Jean King.

Summitt might remind South Floridians of a certain winningest coach. Don Shula, author of the Miami Dolphins’ Perfect Season and 347 NFL victories, was also uncompromising in his standards, unflinching as motivator and teacher, unapologetic about being blunt as stone.

Compare the game-time jawlines of Summitt and Shula. Pure will.

Tough competititors? Summitt went into labor with son Tyler while airborne during a recruiting trip. She would not allow the pilot to land in Virginia because Virginia had beaten Tennessee earlier that year, eliminating the Volunteers before they had a chance to play for the national title on their home court in Knoxville.

She will be remembered not only for her success but for changing perceptions of proper “ladylike” behavior.

When she began her career at Tennessee in 1974 as a 22-year-old head coach, women’s basketball was not an NCAA sport. It was under the auspices of the old Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). For women — the lesser, weaker, unathletic gender. It was segregation by sexism. Tennessee high school girls were relegated to playing six-on-six, half-court basketball until 1979 because the regular game was deemed too strenuous for their fragile bodies — the same reasoning that kept women from running the Olympic marathon until 1984.

On a bare-bones budget, Summitt had to do everything from washing players’ uniforms to driving the team van. Her players always called her Pat.

She saw the potential of women’s basketball at a school and in a part of the country where football had long been king.

Summitt became the first women’s coach to earn a million-dollar salary. When she started, she made $8,900. When she retired, she was making $1.5 million, not even close to the $3-4 million made by top men’s coaches but pushing the cause of equal pay. She proved that the women’s game could be sellout, profitable entertainment. She and her dynamic players made the women’s game appealing to TV.

She turned down offers to coach the Tennessee men’s team twice, in 1994 and 2001, saying she wanted to “keep doing the right things for women all the time.”

“She could have coached any team, any sport, men’s or women’s,” said Peyton Manning, who sought Summitt’s advice when he was quarterback at Tennessee. “It wouldn’t have mattered because Pat could flat out coach.”

Patricia Sue Head Summitt grew up on a farm west of Nashville, cutting tobacco, baling hay and playing basketball with her brothers.

She retired at age 59 when her memory lapses began to interfere with her job, cruelly cutting short a career in which she could have won a couple hundred more games. She created a foundation that’s raised millions for Alzheimer’s research.

“Since 2011, my mother has battled her toughest opponent,” Summitt’s son Tyler said in a statement. “Even though it’s incredibly difficult to come to terms that she is no longer with us, we can all find peace in knowing she no longer carries the heavy burden of this disease.”

Summitt, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was lauded by President Barack Obama for her ability to instill confidence in others.

“Her Hall of Fame career would tell the story of the historic progress toward equality in American athletics that she helped advance,” he said.

It’s been a difficult year with the deaths of iconic figures such as Muhammad Ali, Prince, David Bowie and Summitt. But their innovative influences live on.

Summitt wasn’t just about winning. She knew heartbreak and loss. Behind the glare, she loved her players. She taught them that winning and losing games was the way to learn how to win and lose in the real world.