By Nathan Keil, Lariat sports writer
On June 28, 2016, the sports world lost one of the most prolific, fierce, inspiring and competitive coaches it has ever seen: Pat Summitt. The former University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach lost her courageous battle with early onset Alzheimer’s disease five years after her diagnosis.
“Pat was the greatest coach of all time; her fierce spirit will live on through her players and through all of us who were inspired by her on a daily basis,” said University of Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek in a statement released on the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s website. “Our sincerest sympathies go out to Tyler and all her friends and family.”
Summitt’s success and impact was not simply limited to her 1,098 career wins, an NCAA record, or being the coach of the 1984 Women’s Olympic Basketball team that brought home the gold medal in Los Angeles. It wasn’t about the fact that she was so highly respected she was asked to coach the men’s basketball team on more than one occasion. It was more than the prestigious Arthur Ashe Courage Award she received at the 2012 ESPY’s.
“She’ll be remembered as the all-time winningest D-1 basketball coach in NCAA history, but she was more than a coach to so many,” said Tyler Summit, Patt’s son, in an interview with CNN.
Summitt was a devoted mother and a competitive and rigorous coach who desired to see her players reach their full potential both on and off the court.
“She was a devoted mother to her son, an intense coach, honorable person, fiery in her younger days. She was not afraid to challenge officials or challenge players because she expected the best from them. She was the best you would want a coach to be,” said Kim Mulkey, Baylor University’s women’s basketball head coach.
Mulkey shared a unique bond and friendship with Summitt that spanned over 30 years, both playing for Summitt on the 1984 Olympic team and against her as a head coach at Louisiana Tech and Baylor. They faced everything from the joys and struggles of parenting to the ecstasy of winning a national championship, from perseverance and resiliency through a pending divorce to understanding yourself and your limits as a coach.
“She taught me that I have to be myself,” Mulkey said. “Pat’s personality is how she coached. My personality is how I coach. Intensity, passion and demanding the most from my players. I could relate to her.”
In spite of her fiery demeanor and intensity on the sidelines, Summitt was extremely loyal to her players and genuinely loved every one of them. During a warm-up tournament in Taipei, Taiwan, before the 1984 Olympic games, Mulkey experienced this loyalty firsthand. While playing in the tournament, Mulkey experienced a stress fracture and could barely walk. The Olympics were a mere four weeks away, and as quickly as the injury occurred, her dream was on the verge of being over.
“I remember when she called me into her hotel room, I was scared she was going to send me home and pick up an alternate. Instead, she sat me down, comforted me and told me that you’ve earned the right to be on the team,” Mulkey said.
Somewhere between finding the time to be a loving mother and demanding coach who continued to recruit and win at the highest level, Summitt became a catalyst for change not just for women’s athletics, but also for athletics in general.
“She has so many contributions,” Mulkey said. “Salaries and resources are the way they are because of Pat. She was a good, Southern lady who would do anything to see the women’s game grow. She would speak at places and play the toughest schedule. It would have been incredible to see what her accomplishments would have been if she had stayed healthy.”
Not everyone had the honor and privilege of playing for and coaching against Summitt like Mulkey did. However, she set an example for everyone, regardless of participation in or knowledge of women’s basketball.
“It’s okay to be female and be intense,” Mulkey said. “It’s okay to challenge refs and players and demand things from them and be a lady and a professional.”
This truth is one that Mulkey takes with her every day when she heads into her office.
“When you head to the basketball court, do your job and do it passionately, professionally, and compete,” Mulkey said.