Every female athlete playing sports today owes a debt of gratitude to Pat Summitt
Pat Summitt, who died Tuesday, was a pioneer for all of women's sports, not just basketball
Pat Summitt leaves this world far, far too soon at the age of 64 and as one of the greatest coaches ever in any sport.
Don't add the qualifier of greatest women's coach ever. Just "coach" will suffice. Vince Lombardi, Bill Belichick, Bear Bryant, Nick Saban, John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Connie Mack, Casey Stengel, Scotty Bowman -- pick any great coach you want and Summitt belongs in that conversation.
None of them ever literally built a single sport the way Summitt did with women's basketball. Summitt, who died Tuesday after her public battle with Alzheimer's disease, was about so much more than 1,098 victories at Tennessee (still more wins than any college coach ever), 18 Final Fours and eight NCAA titles. She was a matriarch of modern women's sports, the fiery and classy competitor with an icy stare who invited young women into her hurricane and required them to compete in sports as fiercely as men.
If Billie Jean King is 1A as the champion of female athletes, Summitt was 1B. Summitt, perhaps more than anybody else in the past 40 years, embodied the vision of what women could achieve in sports by setting incredibly high personal standards.
Every female athlete today with an athletic scholarship or a pro career owes a debt of gratitude to Summitt. She helped make women's basketball credible by pushing for more TV exposure and creating a brand for Lady Vols basketball that helped grow the sport.
Even as barriers remain for women's sports, it's easy to forget how far women have come. The WNBA, which was once considered lucky if it lasted a couple years, is now celebrating its 20th anniversary. Twenty-five million Americans watched the U.S. women's soccer team win the World Cup last year in the most-viewed soccer game ever in America. By some measures, Serena Williams ranks as the No. 2 most-recognizable athlete in America behind LeBron James.
Consider the sports world in which Summitt once played and coached. There wasn't even an NCAA women's basketball tournament until 1982. Summitt led the efforts to get one. Now ESPN pays $500 million to televise the women's tournament and other non-football and men's basketball NCAA championships, and President Barack Obama fills out women's NCAA Tournament brackets.
Summitt played basketball at a time with very few sports opportunities for women. Her family once moved to a different town in Tennessee so she could play high school basketball. Summitt's brothers got college athletic scholarships, but her parents had to pay her way to college at the University of Tennessee at Martin, where she was an All-American.
Summitt came from a generation that only knew the archaic and demeaning game of six-on-six girls basketball in high schools. Incredibly, it took until the early 1990s for Oklahoma and Iowa to become the last states to end that version of the sport, thanks to another round of lawsuits.
The rules of six-on-six girls basketball were as demeaning as it sounds. Three guards from one team would defend three forwards from the other on each end. Only forwards could shoot since no one else was permitted to cross midcourt. Players were limited to two dribbles. Defenders were prohibited from stripping the ball from the shooters outside the lane.
In 1976, a lawsuit challenged Tennessee's high school rules that made it one of only six states still playing six-on-six basketball. Summitt, then known as Pat Head and only in her second year coaching the Lady Vols, testified her support for five-on-five basketball.
Dr. Patricia Brake described the trial in a 1998 book called "Justice in the Valley," as recounted by the Knoxville News-Sentinel in 2008.
Gil Gideon, then the executive director of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, testified that girls make better use of their physical talent if they don't have to strain themselves running full court.
Besides, Gideon added, six-on-six allowed the "clumsy girl" who couldn't play full-court basketball a chance to play. To which the plaintiff's attorney, Ann Mostoller, responded: "And what about the clumsy boys? Have you offered this program to the boys? It sounds very good."
The judge ordered the TSSAA to change to five-on-five basketball but didn't issue an injunction, believing the organization would comply. Instead, the TSSAA appealed. Summitt vowed to never sign another Tennessee high school player as long as the TSSAA continued with six-on-six. The association changed its rule in 1979. You don't mess with Pat Summitt.
How much did the times change overlapping Summitt's career? Title IX -- the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education, including athletics - was enacted in 1972. The NCAA appealed the legality of Title IX in 1976. Today, the NCAA headquarters have a Summitt-Wooden room.
She was that influential. She was that good.
When Tennessee built the massive Thompson-Boling Arena in 1987, the Lady Vols -- not the men -- were most responsible for initially filling the seats and even in some later years. The Tennessee women drew more fans than the Tennessee men four times between 1999 and 2005, including a women's college basketball record of 16,565 per game in 1999.
As most SEC men's basketball teams struggled to draw crowds, former SEC commissioner Mike Slive was in awe at how ahead of the curve Summitt was in growing the Lady Vols' fan base. Slive was once blown away visiting the Tennessee locker room before a game and seeing a dozen or so Lady Vols fans there to get behind-the-scenes access.
To watch a Summitt-coached team in person was extraordinary. It was ferocity at its highest form.
The most remarkable college basketball game I've ever witnessed in person occurred on Dec. 4, 1994, when the No. 1 Lady Vols went on the road and demolished Maryland 95-29. Even without two star players, Tennessee led 52-8 at halftime against a Maryland team that had upset the Lady Vols only two years earlier. I have never seen a more perfect half of basketball and I don't think I ever will.
These blowouts led to criticism that Tennessee was too good and bad for women's basketball. That's baloney. Sure, it's always helpful to have better competition. But Summitt somehow hurt women's basketball? Please.
Summitt's first salary in 1974 was $8,900 (the equivalent of $43,369 today when factoring in inflation). She made $1.5 million in her final season coaching. Last season 10 SEC coaches got paid more than $400,000. They can thank Summitt for those checks.
Summitt coached with such intensity that she won over males, too. Virtually every Tennessee football and men's basketball coach sought out her friendship and knowledge as a leader. This wasn't lip service. These were elite men's coaches wanting to replicate what Summitt passed on to her players.
Who else lets their players call the coach by her first name? Who else knew every little detail about their players' lives? Who else demanded that every player sit in the first three rows of their classes and forbid them even one unexcused absence? That was Summitt, whose most remarkable statistic is that every Lady Vol who completed her eligibility at Tennessee left with a degree.
Tennessee twice asked Summitt if she wanted to coach the men's team, but she never showed much interest publicly. Don't think for a second Summitt wouldn't have succeeded. Great teachers are great teachers, no matter the gender. Look at Becky Hammon, the NBA's first full-time female NBA assistant and who has benefitted from paths blazed by Summitt.
Before Geno Auriemma gained mainstream fan and media attention for Connecticut's women's basketball, Summitt did it for Tennessee. Auriemma and Summitt famously feuded for a while that unfortunately cancelled their series, though they later talked and shared a hug at a Final Four.
"Everything my father has done in the world of women's basketball, Pat Summitt did it first," Alyssa Aureimma, Geno's daughter, wrote in a heartfelt blog post in 2012 when Summitt became ill. "It's like that episode of South Park 'Simpsons Already Did It.' Pat Summitt is The Simpsons in this corollary. (Sentences I never thought I'd say.) She got a 39-0 season before UConn did, she got a Championship '3Peat' before UConn did, she got the best recruits before UConn did. And she did it with grace and a sense of dignity that you cannot argue."
The end of Summitt's coaching career in 2012 was heartbreaking as early Alzheimer's began to take over. After one game, Summitt had to be steered down the sideline to shake hands with the opposing coach.
Still, Summitt put a public face on the devastating effects of Alzheimer's while raising money and awareness about the disease. We watched a proud, compassionate woman fight a cruel battle with no cure while seeking no pity.
Pat Summitt is gone too soon. All of us involved in sports, no matter the gender, are far better off for having her as long as we did.
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