It’s somewhat bittersweet that the phenomenal career of University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, who is stepping down almost a year after being diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, is coming to a close just two months before the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark law that paved the way for greater gender equity in high school and college sports. When Summitt, who piled up 1,098 wins—more than any other college basketball coach—and eight national titles in her 38-year tenure, started at Tennnessee, she drove the van. Her team once slept in an opponent’s gym the night before a game. Now, the Lady Vols, and other successful women’s programs, fly on charters, stay in top-notch hotels, and are a national television staple. No single woman is more responsible for this leap forward than Summitt.
As a journalist, I’ll surely miss Summitt on the sidelines. She is one of the more approachable, candid, and downright fun college coaches around. I first met her in the fall of 2005, when I was profiling a star Tennessee freshman named Candice Parker, who had made national headlines by beating the boys at an all-star dunk contest the previous year. (Parker would lead the Lady Vols to a pair of national titles.) I sat in on a Tennessee practice. You can judge a coach’s competence based on how he or she orchestrates a practice. In games, things unfold that are beyond a coach’s control. In practice, the coach’s whistle controls the flow. Is the practice crisp? Is the coach a constant teacher? Does the coach see things you and I don’t? Are the players paying attention?
Pat Summitt coached. In this pre-season practice, she ran her players into shape. No time was wasted. She knew what she wanted, and even better, you could tell that the players knew what she wanted. Afterwards, Summitt and I talked some Xs and Os—for a basketball junkie like me, this was heaven. I don’t remember exactly what I learned about hoops that day. I know I learned something.
But that was just basketball. People often talk about Summitt’s impact and influence off the court. One night in New York City, five years ago, I was fortunate enough to experience, firsthand, why so many Tennessee fans admire her as a person. Her Tennessee team was coming off yet another national championship, and the Lady Vols were being honored at an annual dinner. I attended this dinner with some friends—not as a reporter, but again, as a basketball junkie. After the dinner, the national championship coaches—on both the men’s and women’s side—usually come down to a tap room to mingle with the attendees, maybe answer a few questions from the locals, and take off. They are usually polite. But they rarely want to hang around too long. Talking to civilians can be a chore.
Not for Summitt. For whatever reason, the Tennessee coach and her staff got into a conversation with the group I was with. She didn’t have one eye on the door. She wanted to stay out a bit, and enjoy the city, and she figured these locals were decent company. The group moved on, with Summitt leading the charge, to another place down the block.
Here, my wife met up with me. Summitt introduced herself to her. She wasn’t trying to warm up to some sportswriter: Summitt didn’t recognize me from our prior meeting (not that she should she have, she speaks to tons of reporters) and I don’t even think we talked about what I did for a living. I was just one of these random New York guys having a fun time with Pat Summitt.
My wife told Summitt she was high school physical education teacher, and Summitt started asking her questions, as if she were an old friend just catching up. What were the kids like? Oh, you coach volleyball? What’s the big challenge there? Summitt completely flipped the script. Big-name coaches and players rarely take a genuine interest in the lives of strangers, at least for any extended period of time. It was just a really neat, somewhat surreal, exchange. My wife and I talk about “Pat Summitt night” on occasion. It always lifts our spirits.
By the end of the evening, we were making the kinds of plans that tend to get hatched in late-night establishments. We were all headed to a Tennessee football game that fall, to tailgate with Summitt and her crew. Sure, that would never actually happen. But it sure sounded right—and entirely logical— at the time.
I talked to Summitt on a few occasions after that night, for stories I was working on. I mentioned that I was part of the New York City group, and she was always complimentary: she had a nice time, she couldn’t wait to come back to that dinner (she did, in 2008, as Tennessee won back-to-back titles). As Summitt closes this extraordinarily successful chapter of her life and prepares to face her toughest test, she’ll have a few late-night revelers—and millions of others—rooting for her. By just being herself one night five years ago, she gave us a moment we’ll never forget.