By Steve Williams
When Pat Head Summit was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, one of her remarks in her acceptance speech was, “I feel like I’m an angel in a basketball Heaven.”
For years, Pat could have passed for an angel. Early last Tuesday morning she became one.
Here locally and beyond – from coast to coast in our country and around the globe – people were paying tribute to Summitt, and not for just being an outstanding coach and great promoter of the women’s game, but for being an outstanding human being.
Some of us might have been a little surprised by the magnitude of her worldwide popularity when we heard and saw the volume of acclaim that came her way after she died from Alzheimer’s disease.
Our coach ranked right up there with Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson as far as sports figures so revered.
International basketball took Pat far and wide – Moscow, Mexico and Montreal as a young player and San Juan, Taipei, Seoul, San Paulo and Los Angeles as a young coach. But her roots and values learned growing up on a West Tennessee farm kept her well grounded throughout life.
Former Auburn coach Nell Fortner talked about an “aura” that surrounded Summitt. Even the President of the United States, said Nell, may have a little bit of a hard time addressing an icon like Pat.
“But as soon as you said, ‘Hello Coach Summitt,’ she became a warm and down-to-earth person,” said Nell. That’s a rare quality for a person of her stature, added Fortner, who guided the U.S. to a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics.
Pat was the fourth child and the first girl in her family. She wondered how her parents, Richard and Hazel Head, would feel about a girl.
With three older brothers – Tommy, Charles and Kenneth – Pat soon figured, “They needed me … to play 2 on 2.” To their credit, her older brothers, who each went on to earn an athletic scholarship, helped make Pat tough and competitive.
Her late dad also deserves a big assist in Pat’s basketball career, as he moved the family across the county line to Henrietta in Cheatham County so she could play high school basketball. They didn’t have a girls team in Clarksville.
Her first stop as a 22-year-old Tennessee coach making $250 a month came on Dec. 7, 1974 in Macon, Ga., where her Lady Vols lost 84-83 loss to Mercer. After driving the team back to Knoxville, Pat phoned her dad about the game.
“Trish,” Richard Head might have begun, “you don’t take donkeys to the Kentucky Derby.”
Those words most likely jumpstarted Pat as a recruiter.
Pat was 0-1 but ended up 1,098-208 with eight national titles, including the 39-0 team in 1997-98, when she stepped down April 18, 2012. On her coaching record, Summitt once said she saw “faces” not numbers.
“We were all trying to build a program like hers,” said No. 1 coaching rival Geno Auriemma of Connecticut, one of the first to pay respects.
“UConn basketball wouldn’t be what it is, if not for Pat,” added Diana Taurasi, a former Lady Huskie great.
The most impressive statistic in Summitt’s coaching career came on the academic side. All 161 players who wore the Orange under Pat graduated. And at least 80 of her players went on to become coaches.
Summitt was a co-captain on the U.S. women’s basketball team that won a silver medal in the 1976 Olympics. Billie Moore, an assistant coach on that team, recently recalled seeing Pat for the first time ever in a drill but didn’t know who she was. “Her leadership qualities came to the forefront,” said Moore. “She also embraced guarding the opposing team’s best offensive perimeter player.”
Summitt was head coach of the 1984 team that won the gold.
“Today little girls can grow up and have a dream,” said Pat at her Hall of Fame induction. “They can dream to get a scholarship or be a representative of their country on the basketball court. I just appreciate being a part of that process.”
Current Lady Vol coach Holly Warlick, who played for Summitt and was a longtime assistant under her, was emotionally touched by the large turnout Tuesday as many gathered at the Pat Summitt Plaza, where her statue is located across the street from Thompson-Boling Arena. Many weren’t basketball fans but admirers of Pat the person.
A day of mourning evolved into a day of celebration. The bells at Ayres Hall played the Tennessee Waltz and lights on the Henley Street Bridge were Orange, White and Lady Vol Blue.
A Celebration of Life service honoring Summitt is scheduled for July 14. It is open to the public and will begin at 7 p.m. at Thompson-Boling Arena.