Local residents are remembering Pat Summitt for her pursuit of women’s equality both on and off the basketball court and her public battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
The longtime University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach, who won 1,098 games and eight national championships in 38 seasons with the Lady Volunteers before stepping down in 2012, died Tuesday morning at age 64.
Gainesville High girls basketball coach Brenda Hill-Gilmore — who had known Summitt for years, partly through working as an assistant at the University of Georgia and partly through the recruitment of Hill-Gilmore’s daughter, Tasha Humphrey — said Summitt fought for equality between women’s basketball programs and men’s.
“She just led the way and put women’s basketball on the map,” Hill-Gilmore said.
She noted how Summitt continues to give back through the Pat Summitt Foundation that raises funds to seek a cure for Alzheimer’s.
“This Alzheimer’s disease — it’s tough to see someone that’s so strong and done so much go this way,” Hill-Gilmore said. “It’s just devastating.”
Courtney Newton, girls basketball coach at Flowery Branch, played at the University of South Carolina against Summitt’s teams. Newton, a Flowery Branch High graduate, lauded Summitt’s courage in the face of Alzheimer’s.
“She fought a great fight against a horrible, horrible disease, one that my grandmother is fighting at this moment,” Newton said. “And I know people have found courage and support through the awareness that the Pat Summitt Foundation has brought to this disease.”
Newton said she grew up in East Tennessee looking up to Summitt, and Newton said playing against the Hall of Fame coach “every time there was a respect to be in the same building with her.”
“She has paved the way and set the bar high for coaches in the game of women’s basketball,” Newton said. “I pray that one day I just have an ounce of impact on someone’s life like the thousands that she has had an impact on.”
Sylvia Akers, a 1980 East Hall High graduate who played at Alabama and UNC-Charlotte, had the chance to visit Summitt’s home a few times with friends and former Lady Vols players Shelia Collins and Dawn Marsh. Akers said the coach always made her feel comfortable. And Akers said Summitt “opened the doors for so many people” in women’s basketball.
Akers said Summitt “didn’t hide” after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“She used her platform to try to help somebody else,” Akers said.
Hill-Gilmore said starting in Humphrey’s eighth-grade year, she encouraged her daughter to pick a school to visit each summer. At age 13, she chose to attend Tennessee’s basketball camp.
Though Humphrey eventually went on to play at Georgia, Hill-Gilmore said she appreciated Summitt’s approach.
“Pat was honest,” Hill-Gilmore said. “She’s not going to sugarcoat anything.”
Former East Hall girls basketball coach Ron Ely saw his daughter Cindy and another player he coached, Debbie Groover, play four years for Summitt. Ely worked Summitt’s camp a few times.
“She got down on the level with the kids, and they all loved her,” Ron Ely said. “It was unbelievable.”
Dale Perry, a Gainesville resident, in a letter to The Times recalled how he would always take girls youth basketball players he coached in Madison County to University of Georgia games against Tennessee. He gave each girl a copy of Summitt’s latest book and noted that Summitt would always take the time to speak with each girl and write a personal note with her autograph.
Perry relayed a story of one game where Summitt was hurting throughout, and he wasn’t sure if the girls would get their time with the coach.
“Even though she was clearly hurting, the stool and Sharpie came out on the court, and every little girl in line got her autograph,” Perry wrote. “This wasn’t just any coach, this was coach Pat Summitt.”
Perry, who has three daughters, said he was grateful for Summitt’s many efforts through the years.
“There has never been a better role model for women. Work hard. Don’t accept anything less than excellence. Have and display character. Mentor those coming along behind you,” Perry wrote. “Pat is a hero to a lot of little girls. She is a hero for a lot of fathers of little girls.”