By Mark Nagi
You couldn’t script it if you tried…
A girl from a small town in the middle of Tennessee wins more games than any basketball coach in history…
But Pat Summitt was so much more than that.
Pat was, simply put, one of the most important people in the history of our state, and, along with Billie Jean King, one of the most impactful people in the history of women’s athletics in our country.
Think about it… could you write the book of Tennessee or the history of women’s athletics in America without Pat Summitt? No, you could not.
Pat Summitt came on the scene in 1974, two years after Title IX, as a newly hired 22-year-old basketball coach at the University of Tennessee. She did everything for a Lady Vols basketball program that needed someone to take charge. Heck, women’s sports needed someone to step up and say, “Things are going to change.”
As the years went on, Summitt’s Lady Vols would become a global brand. They won eight National Championships and went to 18 Final Fours. But she always wanted more. Summitt often spoke of the loss in the Regional Finals in 1990 that cost Tennessee a spot in the Final Four that was played in Knoxville. She used that as motivation. The Lady Vols won the national title the following season.
The Lady Vols were willing to play any opponent at any time, and wouldn’t be afraid to go on the road either. A loss at UConn in January 1995 ushered in a new era of women’s basketball. Tennessee didn’t have to play that game, but Summitt knew that it would be good for her sport.
While the Tennessee men’s program floundered for much of Pat’s 38 years at UT, the Lady Vols just kept winning. They did so with class… and by going to class. 100% of the players that finished their eligibility at Tennessee graduated.
Summitt’s impact on those players is obvious… her impact on generations of girls across the country isn’t difficult to see either. She helped girls realize that it was ok to play, and it was all right to be tough and physical and athletic, just like the boys.
I moved to Knoxville in 1994 and started grad school at the University of Tennessee. I was 21 years old, and my knowledge of Tennessee was Elvis Presley and Pat Summitt.
I wanted to be a sportscaster, but had no idea how to be a sportscaster. During those two years I got the opportunity to cover the Lady Vols for the old TNi cable station in town. This wasn’t exactly ESPN folks, but Pat Summitt treated me with respect.
Five years later I was back in Knoxville, working at the local ABC affiliate. I covered the Lady Vols for the next 10 years, interviewing Summitt countless times. Every time we spoke, I felt like I was learning something. And I never felt like it wasn’t something she wanted to do.
Summitt did more for women’s basketball than anyone in history, but she still did those interviews. All of them. And she remembered your name. How on earth did she always make sure to say your name back to you?
One Sunday I had a freelance assignment to shoot some video at her house during a team event. While waiting for dinner to finish (yes, she cooked), we spoke on her deck about life and basketball and TV and her lab that was going to have puppies.
In 2005 I covered the Lady Vols at the NCAA tournament in Philadelphia. Our flight got delayed so we missed the media opportunity. This was going to make it impossible to get anything decent on the air. I asked former Lady Vols Sports Information Director Debby Jennings if we could speak with Pat after practice, but understood if the answer was no. After all she was preparing for the next day’s NCAA tournament game.
Instead, Summitt made sure we were taken care of. I did a one on one interview with her on their way to the bus. But that’s only one story. There are hundreds of others just like it from media members across the world. Summitt was always accommodating. There aren’t many coaches like that.
In 2008 I covered the Lady Vols at the Final Four in Tampa. Tennessee won what would turn out to be Summitt’s 8th and final national championship. After her time on the podium, she answered some questions just for the local media near the locker room. I shook her hand and said, “Congratulations.” She said, “Thank you, Mark.”
No Pat… thank you…
There will never be another Pat Summitt. She left us on a Tuesday morning. She was 64 years old.