Coach Pat Summitt

I happen to be a fan of women’s college basketball, specifically the University of Connecticut’s Lady Huskies.  There wasn’t a lot of attention paid to women’s basketball for a very long time, until UConn and the women who played for the University of Tennessee’s Lady Volunteers gave the country something worth watching.   As much as I love the Lady Huskies, though, it is the coach of the Lady Vols, Pat Summitt, who has done more for this sport than any other single individual.

Any conversation about Pat Summitt should, of course, include all that she has accomplished during her career in womens’ basketball.  It’s been the focus, in one capacity or another, for most of her life.  As a player, she and her team won the Gold Medal at the Pan American Games in Mexico in 1975.  She was on the Silver Medal winning team for the United States during the 1976 Montreal Olympics.  She was the head coach for the women’s team at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and they won a Gold Medal.   Her tenure at Tennessee, and her teams’ astonishing record of titles,  is nothing less than legendary.

It wasn’t an easy road for Coach Summitt or for women’s college basketball when she began to lead the Lady Vols 38 years ago.  She was paid $250 a month and had to launder the team’s uniforms.  No one really cared about women in sports then and they were certainly overshadowed by the men who played basketball – at both the college and professional level.   Summitt, perhaps without even planning it, changed all that when the NCAA finally sanctioned the sport and her teams began to win games – a lot of games.  To date, the women of Tennessee have taken home eight National Championships, one more than the Lady Huskies.   They are a fixture in the brackets during playoff season, as if a spot was simply reserved for them, just a matter of fact.

This is only a part of this woman’s story, however.  There’s another part which has been private, and nowhere near as exciting, but, at least from my perspective, says much more about her.   The last few years have challenged Coach Summitt in different ways.  In 2006, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, her father died and she and her husband separated.  It wasn’t obvious to fans or reporters, and she coached her team to back-to-back championships in 2007 and 2008.  No one who watched her stride along the sidelines, shouting at refs and players alike, would have ever known that anything had changed.  That other stuff was her personal business and never found its way onto the court.

About a year ago, her professional and private life became a public discussion as she announced that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia – Alzheimer’s.  She was profiled on “60 Minutes” a while back and, with her son by her side, explained everything to a television audience.  She talked about how she first ignored little things like losing her keys 3 to 4 times a day, or not knowing what the date or day of the week was.  Then the coach realized that she couldn’t recall plays for her team during games – something that, for a woman who knew these things better than almost anything else in her life – finally frightened her enough to face the problem.

She went to the Mayo Clinic and endured a battery of tests, most of which she admits, tested her patience more than anything else.  When the doctors confirmed their diagnosis, Summitt realized that she had to make changes in her life, including her role as the coach of her beloved basketball team.  Her son has described it as the moment when his Mom – the super hero – realized that she had a chink in her armor.

Summitt, along with her assistants and team, decided that she could take a less active role while still remaining a member of the coaching staff.  It wasn’t easy for any of them. Her team and assistants, both former and current, consider her their mom, their sister and their friend. She, herself, felt that a decision to remain as head coach would shortchange the players, and might have resulted in embarrassment for all of those involved.  The toll the disease has taken on her is becoming more obvious, but she’s not taking it easy by any means.  The coach has a daily regimen of physical and mental exercises which she carries out with the same level of determination and will that she had for coaching.  Her son is there for her, as her best friend, her staunchest ally and her biggest fan.

The other day I wrote a post poking fun at Time magazine’s list of influential people, and I still think they deserved it.  I’d like to email them and ask them if one of the names, oh, I don’t care which one – Ashton Kutcher, maybe; I don’t know what he’s doing there anyway – be removed to make room for a woman whose achievements far outshine most of those candidates.  Her influence will be felt for a very long time.  The most heartbreaking aspect of all of this is that she will, eventually, have no memory of any of it.


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20 Responses to Coach Pat Summitt

  1. IceMeNot says:

    Very sad. My mom had both RA and Dementia. Hopefully, like my mom, Coach’s heart will give out before the worst stages of dementia. Until then, her wisdom will remain intact enough so she will continue to inspire and teach her young students. I hope it is not pity she evokes in them when they see her personality deteriorate, but tender protectiveness–and if so, they will learn a more important lesson. There’s nothing great or heroic to be said about dementia, but there is much to learn about ourselves in taking care of one who is suffers with it.

  2. Viewer 5 says:

    aw, geez.
    lovely post, empress.

  3. C. Jayne says:

    I was born in east Tennessee just below Knoxville. (GO VOLS) Coach Summit has been one of my role models for as long as I can remember. She has demonstrated tenacity, grace and courage throughout her career and continues to exemplify these traits during her time of personal hardship.
    I love that you wrote about Coach Summit, it is an amazing post and you are right on!

  4. Adgirl says:

    What a moving blog. Thank you Empress.
    There are so many real life heroes, mentors and role models, just everyday people who are working out the obstacles in their lives. Just like the rest of us silent warriors.

    We don’t need Time Magazine to point us towards at the politician, celebrity or cause du jour to inspire us.

  5. Lisa Renee says:

    Good Morning Empress, another great blog. I hope Coach Pat has the opportunity to see this. I can see why you admire her so much. I forwarded this to my daughter, she is a huge basketball fan & much to my delight she was quite aware of what Coach Pat has done for the sport & the role women played. My daughter calls her a maverick. I thought that was pretty spot on. Dementia/Alzheimers….I always thought it was one of the cruelest diseases. Have a great day, Lisa

    • Lisa, I would like to work out some sort of shared custody agreement with you where your daughter could visit perhaps a weekend a month. She and I had could have sparkling conversations about things like the exceptions to the hearsay rule.
      Send her my best. 🙂

      • Lisa Renee says:

        Good Morning Empress, that is very sweet. I have gotten that request about Ashley starting when she attended Miss Porters science/math program the summer between 7th & 8th grade. It is a huge compliment. I have been asked through the years how did she turn out so spectacular. My answer is always the same….Read “notes to my daughter” by Cathy Cash Spellman & never ever blink. I was one of the kids the questions came from, her daughters were my best friends (we all lived in Kips Bay i was in apt. 6L they lived in 1L) for all my heathen years. Sadly, both her daughters are deceased & I made it out alive, tragic. I would love for her to spend time with someone as dynamic as you. She is real easy to love & lives to learn. Be warned, she eats alot. 🙂 If you want a visual she is @meija2425 on twitter. Have a great day, I look forward to your next blog. Lisa

  6. mary burke says:

    Beautiful post. I’ve been a Chicago fan of Pat Summitt’s for about 25 years. I bought a ticket to the Vols recent tournament game in Chicago just so I could be there when she walked out on the floor. She got a wonderful standing ovation. It was nice to see. You are right, she deserves to be at the top of any list of influential people. Thanks for writing this.

  7. IceMeNot says:

    Sorry for the typo above. Was half asleep but had to write…helps to talk about what happened with my mom who valiantly worked til her mind gave out–in spite of the crippling and exhausting pain of Rheumatoid Arthritis and loss of memory from her dementia.
    I was thinking about the Coach’s son and what’s called ‘Caregiver Burnout.’ Caregiver Support groups are so helpful to family members who get exhausted from being there for their loved one.
    Reminds me of how Diva has been reflecting on her life of late.
    This is such a moving topic, Empress, especially the way you write. I hope you’ll tell us about other quiet heros whose stories inspire us.

  8. LuvMyGals says:

    I’m so excited to have found you gals here – one lucky little click in life. But now I am stunned. The juxtaposition of Pat Summitt and the previous day Bethenny does put some perspective on things. I’ve been recovering from my HW addiction of late, finding that as you mentioned “the real heroes” and those who are immersed in many deep facets of this life are so much more interesting. I recently, very quietly, celebrated the birthday of my mother who died two years ago, after a number of years with dimentia slowly taking her memories. I pray that Pat Summitt;s son receives the blessings we did – mom being able to recognize us throughout, being able to remember some of the most special times when we found the right key to unlock them, and such precious moments in caring for her. I know she’ll be surrounded by loving people to take her through this part of her journey. I think that’s really all any of us need. Luv to all of you.

    • LuvMyGals,
      “The juxtaposition of Pat Summitt and the previous day Bethenny” was not a conscious decision on my part, but it worked out as the perfect contrast.
      From someone who misses her Mom everyday, I’m happy to hear how fondly you remember yours, and that the end of her years were, fortunately, blessed ones for all of you.
      I’m also excited that you found us, too.

  9. melthehound says:

    Before this post, I didn’t know who she is. That shouldn’t surprise anyone because some of you ladies are much bigger sport fans than I’ll ever be, men Or women. It’s sad though for someone to basically forget who they are, where they’ve been, what they’ve done. I can draw a small parallel to Some of her story though. Mom had RA for years to the point where she couldn’t straighten her hands out. Didn’t stop her though even though she was probably in pain from it every day for the last 20 years of her life. She was a general contractor who got her start hanging aluminum siding off the top of a 30 foot ladder. After she decided to leave the retail world, she got her builder’s license and turned it into quite a successful business. It was finally cancer that took her out, in less than a year. All the crazy stuff she did, the times she got hurt by doing one thing or another, it was an unseen disease that finished her. There were only a couple months of that year that she could really do for herself. The treatments devastated her but even until the day we took her to the hospital for the last time (4 days before she died), she insisted on going to work. Forever afraid that if she stopped, she wouldn’t be able to start up again. My Parallel here is, I was the person taking care of her. My sister lived many miles away at the time and just couldn’t do it. I, her son, was thrilled to be able to do that for my mother because she took care of me, every time, Every time, I needed it. Fortunately for both of us, there wasn’t much custodial care required but if it was, I still would have been happy to at least make sure it got done.

  10. baronessbeachcomber says:

    I have long been an admirer of Coach Summit and have loved watching her coach over the years. When she was not happy with her players, she always gave them “the look.” Those who have watched her coach know what I mean. It’s been kind of sad for me to watch her sit on the sidelines with her team this year, but not really being the active coach she has in the past. My thoughts and prayers go out to her, her son, and the Tennesee Vols family as she faces her future head on, just like she has done with all other challenges in her life.

  11. Buttercream says:

    I am one of 4 sisters who played basketball pre Title IV.
    We have followed Pat’s Career at TN for decades.
    She’s the woman you want to be friends with and would like your daughters to be coached by.
    My children all know “the look” from me – does not happen often, just often enough …
    Thanks for the blog on a wonderful woman who has given so much to one sport.

  12. Tammy says:

    I am a Tennessean and a HUGE Pat Summitt fan. I love your idea about removing someone from the list to make way for Pat!!!!

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