The Lady Vols have cut the nets for the 15th time as SEC conference tournament champions under Pat Summitt. For a coach like Summit, some might proclaim this as old hat because of the recurring feats she has notched during her career. Others may feel this was a remarkable season for the coach who has built a reputation as a fearless leader.
In 1974 the University of Tennessee hired Pat Summitt as Head Coach for the women’s basketball team. Summitt has experienced a legendary career since she first began roaming the sidelines in Knoxville. Equipped with her well known deep blue-eyed stare towards referees and players, Summitt has achieved numerous accomplishments during her 38 years as a head coach.
Among Summitt’s accomplishments are eight national titles and ranking first on the all-time wins leader list in college basketball history, including both men and women programs. She has never experienced a losing season at Tennessee and has guided her teams to 18 NCAA Final Four appearances.
College basketball fans, let alone Tennessee fans, would likely admit there was a worry going into this season. After all, when life-altering circumstances affect a person’s health, everything else tends to take-on less importance.
Coach Summitt though possesses a desire to succeed in everything she is involved with. She has enjoyed her success by surrounding herself with not only skilled players but also with bright individuals outside of basketball. One of the off-court accomplishments Summitt has had a part in is a 100 percent graduation rate of each student-athlete who completed their eligibility at Tennessee. Going into each season, Summitt has each new freshman-recruit complete a personality profile to have them define who they are as a person and basketball player. The main traits Summitt looks for are how competitive someone is, and if the person also always works towards improvement in whatever they do. Summitt looks for leaders on her teams to take charge in the heat of the moment. Instead of controlling every situation with her words, she allows players on her team instruct each other.
Adaptability is one of the greatest strengths Summit has shown throughout her career. She would watch the coaching styles of two legendary men’s college basketball coaches, Dean Smith of the University of North Carolina and Bob Knight at Indiana University, and seek advice from them as well. Summitt adapted both of their styles and helped to transform women’s college basketball. Besides helping change a sport, there have also been personal changes as well. In the earlier years of coaching there was a greater chance of seeing her yelling and engage any and everyone around her with confrontation. Summitt has admitted she needed to adapt and become a better communicator instead of taking out frustrations on her players.
Above all, Summitt hates losing. Whether it was her actual playing days in high school and at the University of Tennessee-Martin, or coaching, Summitt simply despises not being the winner. So much in-fact she admits a loss will make her physically sick. An example of her desire to win was evident throughout her college basketball playing career and also when she qualified for the 1973 World University Games. An injury was sustained after making the team causing a dramatic weight gain. Giving-up was not an option. Persistence rewarded not only her but also the team with a silver medal during the competition.
Summitt’s determination and dismay for losing has now led her to a point in her life where she has learned to lean on her leadership and life skills more than ever. This past May, Summit was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. Much like Summitt’s coaching career in her earlier years, she addressed the diagnosis initially with anger. Since then though, she has chose to accept any and all advice from doctors regarding the brain disease.
The support group Summitt has surrounded herself with on the hardwood will not let her down. Going into this season, three loyal assistants have served a combined total of 50+ years roaming the sidelines with the coach who lives and breathes Tennessee. She realized this year more coaching staff responsibilities, including play-calls, would have to fall in the shoulders of these assistant coaches.
Before the season began, assistant coach Dean Lockwood explained “one of Pat’s strengths is that she’s done a great job in giving people autonomy and leadership in key areas…this is probably one of the greatest insurance things she’s done, and the sign of her leadership.”
Her imprint on the team still shows visible. As the second half of the SEC championship game between Tennessee and LSU became a back-and-forth affair, Coach Summitt was allowing her team and collection of coaches decide the outcome. Coach Holly Warlick paced the bench waving her arms when she needed to grab the attention of a Lady Vol player, shouting instructions. The team displayed continued resilience by not relinquishing the lead, except for a tied score within the first few minutes of the half.
When the final horn sounded, Tennessee would walk off the court again carrying championship hardware under Pat Summitt’s tenure. A tenure which has seen a program transformed and validated into a winner for the past five decades.