The thing about Pat Summitt, who passed away Tuesday morning at the age of 64, way too soon, was her toughness. She didn’t coach women’s basketball, she coached basketball. She coached it with the same toughness, intellect and accountability as someone who was coaching men’s basketball. There wasn’t a difference.
I remember in 1989 when UK’s new athletics director C.M. Newton was looking for a basketball coach and a media member jokingly mentioned Summitt’s name as a possibility.
“Pat could do it,” Newton shot back.
I also remember a story former Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote told me. When Heathcote was an assistant on the U.S. Pan American Games team in 1975, then-UK star Rick Robey was a member of the men’s team; Summitt a member of the women’s team. The latter had a crush on the former, something Heathcote said he and the players loved to tease Robey about.
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Summitt could be intimidating. Early in my career, I covered a lot of women’s college basketball and one of the toughest letters I ever received came from Summitt. At the time, in the early stages of women’s basketball as an NCAA sport, she was allowed to serve on the selection committee. I didn’t think that was right. I made snarky mention of it in a story. Summitt didn’t like me questioning her integrity. And she let me know it. She didn’t back down.
It’s hard to truly measure her impact on women’s college basketball, but Summitt’s influence went way beyond that sport. Her drive, determination and passion for excellence served as an example for all women athletes and all athletes in general. She paved the way for those who came before.
“In modern history, there are two figures that belong on the Mount Rushmore of women’s sports — Billie Jean King and Pat Summitt,” Mary Jo Kane, a sports sociologist at the University of Minnesota, said in 2011, according to the New York Times. “No one else is close to third.”
Summitt was truly a transformative figure, one who made the women’s game what it is today; who helped women’s sports become what it is today. We throw the words “legendary” and “giant” around too much today, but to Summitt they surely apply. She was truly a giant.
▪ Mark Story writes about the time Summitt nearly became Kentucky women’s coach.
▪ Summitt’s connections went way beyond basketball, writes John Adams of the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
▪ In 2011, Summitt opened up about her Alzheimer’s diagnosis to her friend Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post.
▪ To many, Summitt was just Pat, writes Dan Fleser of the News-Sentinel.
▪ Pat Summitt leaves a legacy of empowering women, writes Alexander Wolff of Sports Illustrated.
▪ A look at Pat Summitt’s milestone victories, from CBS News.
▪ There will never be another Pat Summitt, says Michelle Voepel of ESPN.