Pat Summitt: one-woman wrecking ball who cared

by Beth Hanna

Pat Head Summitt as a UT-Martin player.
Pat Head Summitt as a UT-Martin player. University of Tennessee-Martin

Pat Head Summitt set the platinum standard for every basketball coach who has come before or will come in the future. Bar none.

Pat and I were never friends but we had friends in common and we met a handful of times.

In 1973 I was a freshman on the University of Kentucky Lady Cats basketball team. We took a road trip to Murray to play three games in two days.

This was in the era I call B.S. – before scholarships. We shared uniforms with the volleyball team, got $1.50 for a meal when out of town, were never recognized as intercollegiate athletes but were the happiest team on Earth because we were playing basketball for the University of Kentucky.

The final game of this road trip was against UT-Martin, where Pat played. My most vivid memory was being awestruck by the long, leggy player named Pat Head. She showed no mercy and wore our butts out. It didn’t matter who or how many guarded her — she picked us apart and was a one-woman wrecking ball. I remember thinking, “That’s the best basketball player I’ve ever seen.”

Unfortunately for us, the game was recorded so we had to relive it back in Lexington. It was not a pleasant experience.

UK hosted the AIAW regional tournament that year. We didn’t make it nor did UT-Martin. Pat came anyway.

We had a hospitality room at the Downtowner Motel. The lack of collegiate regulation allowed us to gather with coolers of beer, bags of chips and cards for playing poker.

Pat came. We all played cards. I can’t remember who won or lost. I do remember it was a big, fun time with young women who sensed we were on the verge of seismic change in the collegiate athletic landscape.

Title IX was in effect and it was about to get real.

Pat became the University of Tennessee’s coach. Her path is well documented. I never rooted for UT in any sport — except women’s basketball. I always rooted for Pat’s Lady Vols. Loved watching them play. Loved watching them win. Pat made fans out of people who never thought they’d be fans.

My UK teammate, Ceal Barry, was an assistant coach for the U.S. at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Several former UK teammates went to the final game to see our friend and the U.S. team capture the gold. It was thrilling for everyone. but none was so proud as Ceal’s mother. When Mrs. Barry tried to get to the locker room to celebrate with her daughter security said she didn’t have the right credentials.

As we stood trying to figure out what to do, Pat came walking up. Someone said, “Pat, this is Ceal’s mom and they won’t let her down to the locker room. Can you help out?” Pat took Adele’s arm and said, “Mrs. Barry come with me. Let’s go see Ceal.”

It was Pat making sure a mother could be with her daughter at one of the highlights of her career. That was Pat, the woman who cared about others like they were her own.

The last time our paths crossed was at former UK head coach, Mickie DeMoss’ house in Lexington. Pat and her staff had come to support DeMoss’ charity golf tournament. The night before everyone met to eat, have drinks and share stories.

I was fortunate to be asked to make the food. Pat particularly liked the chicken pot pie and we discussed recipes but neither of us remembered much about the game we played so many years ago.

That evening I got to hear some great stories about Pat, Lady Vol basketball and the friendship these women shared. The camaraderie, respect and love were special. It all emanated from Pat. She was the source, the guide and the reason.

Pat made all these successful, confident women’s lives what they were, and they all loved her.

As I reflect on Pat Head Summitt, this remarkable woman, I feel warmth and affection for the lives touched, the accomplishments achieved, the compassion exhibited, the sport elevated and, most of all, the life so well lived.

Rest in peace, Pat, the world will miss you.

Beth Hanna is the chef/owner of Hanna’s on Lime in Lexington and can be reached at eghanna@twc.com.