She was one of this nation’s amazing leaders, a true treasure.
Her incredible career began in an era of inequality and outright discrimination of women. When she made the “big-time” her salary was $250 — not an hour, not a day, or a week. She was paid $250 a month.
She had to beg and borrow just to get the job done. She even washed her “employees” clothes.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, that level of discrimination against women was just an accepted way of life. Go along, get along. Stay in your place.
Born Patricia Sue Head in 1952 in Clarksville, TN, she had four older brothers. Her parents moved because her hometown high school did not have a girl’s basketball team. She went to University of Tennessee at Martin where she won All America honors. Without Title IX which guaranteed equality to women in athletics, Patricia’s parents had to pay for her college education. Her brothers all had athletic scholarships.
Against adversity and some scorn, she became an exceptional leader who created an amazing legacy.
Patricia Sue Head Summitt, the winningest basketball coach in America died on Tuesday. The cause of death was early onset of dementia which forced her to retire from the sport and the job she loved in 2012. There is a great sadness because we have lost an exceptional leader, a wonderful role model.
For 38 years she led the University of Tennessee Lady Vols and built the program into one of the best in the nation.
When she took the job before the 1974-75 season, women’s basketball was a poor, mistreated stepchild; major college athletic departments treated women’s athletics as more of a nuisance than credible sports. She had to raise money — donut sales — to buy uniforms. The university gave little or no money and Pat had to drive the van to away games. In some cases they slept in their opponents gyms because there was no money for hotels.
During her tenure she won more games — 1,098 — than the legendary John Wooden of UCLA. She won eight NCAA Championships, surpassed only by John Wooden and UConn’s Geno Auriemma.
She won the gold medal as coach of the 1984 Olympic women’s baseball team, and in 2000 she was named the Naismith Basketball Coach of the Century. Sporting News placed her number 11 on its list of the 50 Greatest Coaches of All Time in all sports; she was the only woman on the list.
She never had a losing season.
On the day she announced her retirement in 2012, Marquette University named her beloved son, Tyler, as an assistant coach for their women’s team.
President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2012 ESPY Awards.
While her record as a coach was stunning, for me, that is not the most amazing part of who Pat Summitt was.
She was a great leader, someone who the corporate titans of Wall Street or Main Street would be wise to emulate.
While she never made it to the Fortune 50, and never made the same big bucks that many of her less successful male counterparts earned, that was not important. She felt that she had the job of a lifetime, molding the lives of girls into young women.
She never let the big money that afflicts — some say corrupts — college sports today affect her level of commitment to her players, and her insistence that they earn their degrees.
Unlike most Division I NCAA Athletic programs, all of Pat Summitt’s players — 100 percent — graduated.
Here is what one of her player’s said about her former coach:
“She taught us that winning is not the point. Wanting to win is the point. Never giving up is the point. Some people have heroes that wore capes. My hero wore a whistle.”
© 2019 John Gregory Self