Across the years, I covered a fair number of games that Pat Summitt coached against Kentucky, but my most meaningful interaction with the iconic, long-time Tennessee Lady Vols basketball coach came over the phone.
It was April, 1998, not long after Summitt had led Tennessee to its third straight NCAA title. She was coming to Lexington’s Joseph-Beth Booksellers to sign her motivational book Reach for the Summit, co-written with Washington Post sportswriter Sally Jenkins.
At 10 a.m. one weekday, Summitt was scheduled to call me to do an interview for a story in advance of her appearance in Lexington.
At exactly 9:56, my office phone rang. It was Summitt’s book publicist, explaining the coach had encountered an air travel delay and would be unable to call.
Literally the second I hung up with the publicist, the phone rang again.
It was Summitt.
“I figured out a way to make the call. I like to keep my commitments,” she explained.
Over the weekend, the news out of Knoxville regarding the health of Summitt, 64, was grim. The Knoxville News Sentinel, citing a source, reported that Summitt was “struggling” and those close to her were “preparing for the worst.” (Summit’s son announced after the publication of this story that she died Tuesday morning at Sherrill Hill Senior Living in Knoxville.)
A statement issued by Summitt’s family said “the past few days have been difficult for Pat as her early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, progresses.”
It is all but impossible to overstate Summitt’s impact on college sports, especially in the South. Her reach stretched far beyond her 1,098 career wins (vs. 208 defeats), her eight NCAA championships, 18 trips to the Final Four or her 32 SEC championships (16 regular-season titles, 16 league tournament crowns).
More than any other person, Summitt legitimized women’s college basketball and took it mainstream in the culturally conservative South.
It is a little known facet of Summitt’s story that, had things gone differently early in her career, she might have achieved her Hall of Fame status coaching at Kentucky, not Tennessee.
Like many who preferred basketball to football in the pigskin-obsessed South, Summitt grew up in rural Tennessee in the 1960s fascinated with Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats.
“I think a lot of people in the South who cared about basketball grew up rooting for Kentucky,” Summitt said in that 1998 phone interview. “They were always my team on the men’s side, just as Tennessee was my team in football. I don’t think I was too unusual at all.”
So in the summer of 1976, when Summitt had coached the Lady Vols for two seasons, she was intrigued when UK contacted her about possibly becoming its women’s head coach.
“At that time, I had no way of knowing what the (financial) commitment to (women’s basketball) would be here,” Summitt said of Tennessee. “And, because it was Kentucky, I thought that job had a lot of potential.”
Alas, the course of women’s basketball history turned over $100.
“If my memory is right, I was making $8,900 at Tennessee,” Summitt said in 1998. “Kentucky was offering $9,000. I didn’t think I could afford to move for $100.”
As time passed, Tennessee invested heavily in women’s basketball and gave Summitt the resources to build a dynasty. Kentucky, after the era of star player Valerie Still in the early 1980s, fell behind in the sport and didn’t really make a serious commitment to success until Mitch Barnhart — a former UT assistant athletics director — was hired as UK AD in 2002.
In 2003, Barnhart tabbed Summitt’s long-time assistant, Mickie DeMoss, as UK head coach.
DeMoss stayed only four years in Lexington, but her willingness to take the Kentucky job — and the perception that Summitt thought it was a good move for her to do so — raised expectations for what was possible at UK in women’s hoops.
When DeMoss left in 2007, UK turned to one of her former assistants, Matthew Mitchell. As a Mississippi high school coach, Mitchell had formed the contacts necessary to enter college hoops by working at Summitt’s summer camps. His first formal role in women’s college basketball was as a graduate assistant to Summitt at UT in 1999-2000.
Under Mitchell, Kentucky has fulfilled some of the potential Summitt saw in the 1970s. Although Mitchell and UK have endured a tumultuous, defection-filled 2015-16, the Wildcats have made seven straight NCAA tournaments and have advanced to the round of 16 or better five times.
So even though she never coached at the school whose men’s basketball tradition long fascinated her, Summitt’s coaching tree has affected UK women’s basketball profoundly.
Still, what if Kentucky in 1976 had given Summitt more than $100 worth of reasons to move? Might the history of women’s basketball have looked very different?
“I’m not sure, when it got right down to it, I would have ever left Tennessee,” Summitt said in 1998. “It’s hard to leave home.”