The woman, the myth, the legend.
It’s impossible to write the history of Tennessee without mentioning Pat Summitt. Yes, her impact on the game of basketball is well-documented, but her passion for bettering the lives of everyone she met is unmatched.
Summitt passed away June 28, 2016, after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Her life was cut short, but it was one that accomplished more in 64 years than many thought possible.
Before you learn how Summitt opened doors for women that were previously locked shut, you must first learn of how a life in the Volunteer State turned into becoming one of the most iconic Tennessee Volunteers of all time.
Born Patricia Sue Head on June 14, 1952, in Clarksville, Tennessee, basketball quickly became a central part of her life. As a high schooler, the Head’s moved to Henrietta, Georgia so she could play in Chatham County. Her hometown of Clarksville didn’t have a girls team.
As one of the top players in the state, Pat earned a spot on the University of Tennessee at Martin’s women’s basketball team. The success was only just beginning. There, she won All-American honors under the first UT-Martin women’s basketball coach, Nadine Gearin. At the time, there were no scholarships for women, but the love of the game made it a no-brainer. After becoming a co-captain of the US Women’s National basketball team and winning a silver medal for Team USA at the 1976 Summer Olympics, her playing days were over. Now came what she’s most well-known for – coaching.
At 22, Summitt became a grad assistant at the University of Tennessee Knoxville and was named head coach after the current head coach suddenly quit in 1974. This is when her passion for the game was tested. She famously washed player’s uniforms and drove the team van to away games. Anything to play ball.
At the time, women’s basketball was not an NCAA-sanctioned sport, and four of the players on her first team were only a year younger than her. It only took a couple of years before Summitt turned the Lady Vols into a powerhouse program. That term is used as a way to describe a record and championship-acumen, not notoriety, yet. It wasn’t until the 1981-82 season that Summitt made her first appearance in an NCAA Women’s basketball tournament. It wasn’t for lack of trying, it was for lack of an actual tournament. That season was the first ever.
It would be the start of Summitt’s illustrious tournament resume. Under her tutelage, the Lady Vols appeared in 18 Final Fours, won 8 National Championships, 16 SEC Tournament Championships and 16 SEC regular season championships.
The personal accolades poured in as well. She was a five-time Naismith Coach of the Year, a three-time WBCA Coach of the year, eight-time SEC Coach of the year and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2021.
Summitt managed to both dominate on the court, and put the sport of women’s basketball on the map. Her simpler days of driving the team bus and fighting for resources turned into a full-fledged dynasty with the women’s basketball team often topping the men in attendance. Thanks to Summitt’s impact on the sport, the Women’s basketball Hall of Fame is located in downtown Knoxville and the “Lady Vol” name carries a certain cache that still aids in recruiting to this day.
Whether they realize it or not, because of Pat Summitt, little girls grow up wanting to be basketball players. Also, they grow up wanting to be a Lady Vol.
Summitt proved that through dedication, passion and a relentless work ethic, anything is possible for women. She was a mentor to so many powerful and strong women, which is why her legacy lives on through people like Candice Parker and Kara Lawson. Two women blazing trails in their respective fields. Summitt was a trailblazer of the game, but also of women in sports.
Her death five years ago was a reminder of that. Dozens of former players, assistant coaches and women in the sports world lined up to speak about Summitt’s impact in their lives. Hours and hours of stories, lessons and tears were shared across the street from where Summitt’s statue stands on the UT campus. It sits as a reminder of her legendary status.
Pat Summitt won a lot of games (1,098 to be exact), but opened even more doors for women everywhere, including myself.