Pat Summitt, the legendary Tennessee women’s basketball coach who led the Lady Vols to eight national titles during her 38-year tenure with the program, died on Tuesday.
She was 64 years old.
Summitt had been battling early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, for the past five years. She coached for a season after getting diagnosed. Since January, she had been living in what her son, Tyler, termed as an ‘upscale retirement resort’, and over the weekend, friends and family started making their way to Knoxville for what was expected to be their final goodbyes.
Summitt was a legend in coaching the same way that Prince and David Bowie were legends in the music industry and Muhammad Ali was a legend in the American sporting landscape and the civil rights movements. How many people in sports get awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom? Summitt did in 2012.
That’s how important she was, not just to the coaching industry but to women’s sports. She died at 64 years old, so it’s easy to forget that she spent 38 years heading up the Lady Vols. She took over the program when she was just 22 years old, two years after the introduction of Title IX and two years before she would win a silver medal in the 1976 Olympic Games.
At the time she took over the program, women’s basketball wasn’t even an NCAA sanctioned sport. Tennessee competed in the AIAW — Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women — because the NCAA didn’t offer championships in women’s sports until 1982. That didn’t stop Summitt from turning Knoxville into the center of the women’s basketball universe, amassing 32 combined SEC titles, seven National Coach of the Year awards, an NCAA Division I record 1,098 wins (Coach K is second with 1,040) and a record 18 Final Fours, which is six more than John Wooden recorded.
But perhaps more impressive was that she made her basketball team its own brand, the ‘Lady Vols’. The women’s sports teams even had their own athletics director.
That’s what Summitt helped build.
She made the Tennessee Women’s Basketball a brand in a sport that wasn’t even a sport when she started her coaching career.
And there aren’t too many people that can make that claim in any walk of life.