I was saddened to learn Pat Summitt, retired women’s basketball coach at Tennessee, passed away. I had the privilege of crossing paths in little ways with Coach Summitt over the years. Each time, my respect for the great lady increased.
Most people’s image of Coach Summitt is a woman with a glare that could cut steel quicker than a laser. She would accept nothing less than the best from her players. Her work ethic was legendary. She did not make or take excuses.
For years, I coached 9- and 10-year-old girls’ basketball for Madison County Parks and Recreation. When Tennessee came to play the Lady Dawgs, I would take my team to the game. I bought each player Pat’s latest book. After each game, Pat would sit on the court and sign autographs. The lines were long but she would ask the player her name and write a personal note in her book. The Tennessee bus did not leave Stegman Coliseum until every little girl had the coach’s autograph.
One year, Pat had something wrong with her leg. She was limping, pain and frustration on her face. I wouldn’t have blamed her if she skipped the autographs. I should have known better; that would not have been Pat Summitt. She expected her players to be tough and she set the example. Even though she was hurting, the stool and Sharpie came out on the court and every little girl in line got her autograph.
A few years ago, my daughter, 8 or 9 at the time, spent a Sunday afternoon writing a letter to Summitt. A few weeks later, here comes an envelope with an 8 x 10 color picture of the coach on one stool and a long line of stools holding her eight national championship trophies. There was a handwritten note (in Sharpie) to Julia on the picture. My blood runs red and black, but this daddy took that picture to the frame shop and had it matted and framed in orange and white. It hangs on the wall over the head of Julia’s bed.
To add insult to injury, I carried my little girl up to Knoxville for the Pat Summitt Basketball Camp. Little did we know it would be Pat’s last camp. My wife and I got to the closing ceremony early and sat in the nosebleed section of Thompson-Boling Arena watching the legendary coach interact with 300 young girls. At the end of the ceremony, Pat took the microphone and went into a rousing version of “Rocky Top.” I hate that song, but to hear Summit sing a cappella in front of 300 adoring girls was enough to bring tears to the eyes of this old Dawg. Then the girls sang, or maybe screamed, “Happy Birthday” for Pat. Months later came Coach Summitt’s announcement that she had Alzheimer’s. Her coaching career would soon end.
No one has done more for women’s equality than Summitt, not just in sports but women’s equality period. There has never been a better role model for young girls: Work hard. Don’t accept anything less than excellence. Have character. Mentor those coming behind you. Pat is a hero to a lot of little girls and to their fathers. Pat Head Summitt is an American hero. We are going to miss you Pat!