Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt, a pioneer of women’s college basketball who guided the Tennessee Volunteers to eight national titles in her 38 seasons at the university, died Tuesday morning. She was 64.
Summitt led the Lady Vols to 1,098 victories — the most in Division I college basketball history (men or women) – before stepping down in 2012, one year after announcing she had early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.
Legendary Summitt truly one of a kind
She was one of sports’ most accomplished figures but also universally beloved and humbly warm. To say there will never be anyone like Pat Summitt is not hyperbole. In fact, it seems inadequate.
Summitt inspired a generation
Pat Summitt brought respect to women’s college basketball and made young players — even those who weren’t good enough to suit up for the Lady Vols — want to be the best.
Summitt’s influence was wide, far reaching
Whether in handwritten letters, conversations on the recruiting trail or the occasional postgame handshake — yes, even after a 65-point loss — every interaction with Pat Summitt was memorable.
“It is with tremendous sadness that I announce the passing of my mother, Patricia Sue Head Summitt,” said Summitt’s son Tyler in a statement. “She died peacefully this morning at Sherrill Hill Senior Living in Knoxville surrounded by those who loved her most.
“Since 2011, my mother has battled her toughest opponent, early onset dementia, ‘Alzheimer’s Type,’ and she did so with bravely fierce determination just as she did with every opponent she ever faced. Even though it’s incredibly difficult to come to terms that she is no longer with us, we can all find peace in knowing she no longer carries the heavy burden of this disease.”
Named the NCAA coach of the year seven times, Summitt led the Lady Vols to 22 Final Fours (18 NCAA, 4 AIAW) in her nearly four decades as coach.
Of her eight national championships, she won three straight from 1996 to ’98. Her teams won 16 Southeastern Conference tournament titles and made an unprecedented 31 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament.
For many, with the advent of Title IX in 1972, Summitt became the face of women’s college team sports in that she helped prove, from the outset, that they could work.
Long before the Lady Vols had their own basketball only practice facility and she was making a seven-figure salary, Summitt made just $8,900 per year and fought with physical education classes for practice space in a multi-use gymnasium.
“I don’t know how much I’ve had to do with that, but I’m proud of what’s happened,” Summitt told ESPN in 2009 about the growth of women’s sports. “That’s the main thing. I do take a lot of pride in seeing the success of other conferences, as well as what’s happening right here on this campus. And just seeing women’s sports with a level of appreciation and awareness and coverage that we’ve never enjoyed before. So yeah, when I think about that, have we finally arrived? I hope so.”
As a child, Summitt’s father moved his family across county lines to a district whose high school had a girls basketball team so she would be able to play.
And play she did.
She attended college at the University of Tennessee Martin, where she starred on the basketball court that now bears her name. She helped lead the team to a 64-29 record at UT Martin, along with two appearances in the national championship tournament. She graduated as the school’s all time leading scorer (1,045 points). During her junior year in college, she played with the U.S. team in the World University Games. The silver medal she won there was matched with the same finish as part of the national team at the 1975 Pan Am Games by which time, she had begun her college coaching career and had recovered from a knee injury suffered in her senior year at UT Martin. She then played for and co-captained the U.S. team at the 1976 Olympic Games, earning another silver medal as the U.S. finished second to the Soviet Union as women’s basketball made its first appearance as an official Olympic sport.
Eight years later, Summitt coached the U.S. national team to gold at the 1984 Olympic Games. She was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, the same year she was named the Naismith Coach of the Century. Summitt was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2012.
In addition, she was Sports Illustrated’s Sportswoman of the Year in 2011 and honored with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2012 ESPYS. And, perhaps most importantly, all her players who completed their eligibility went on to earn their degrees.
“As a coach, you want to win. Pat did that,” Hall of Fame men’s coach Bob Knight told ESPN in 2014. “But, across the board with her kids, she also prepared them for life after basketball. Her kids probably had the best situation of any group of players at the college level, male or female for learning what life would be all about. Through what they had learned through her practices and games, Pat’s players were ready to go out and be successful beyond basketball.
“I’m sure she has a tremendous feeling of pride in what her players have accomplished in basketball and whatever endeavors they’ve gone into. Not many people have prepared their players that well for life.”
Tamika Catchings, who won two national titles with Tennessee, also spoke to that point in 2013.
“When you look at all of us and all the things we’ve been able to accomplish not only on the basketball court, but even off the court, we’ve got coaches, we’ve got entrepreneurs, we’ve got mothers, a little bit of everything,” Catchings said. “We learned (from Summitt) what it takes to be a leader, what it takes to be a great woman, what it takes to be a great lady, what it takes to have character, what it takes to have poise, how not to buckle under adversity.”
At the age of 22, Summitt accepted the offer of a graduate teaching and assistant coaching position at the University of Tennessee after graduating from UT Martin in 1974. When the head coach suddenly resigned to pursue a Ph.D. study program, Summitt was promoted. The Lady Vols lost their first game under her and went on to finish 16-8.
In her second season (1975-76), Summitt coached the Lady Vols while earning her master’s degree and training for the U.S. Olympic team. The following two seasons, she guided Tennessee to backtoback AIAW Region II titles and entry into the national tournament. The Lady Vols made their first AIAW Final Four in 1977, and made a return to the national semifinals in 1979 (finishing third both times). She then guided Tennessee to back-to-back AIAW national championship games in 1980 and ’81, but fell short both times.
After the NCAA took over as the governing body for women’s sports by 1982, Summitt led the Lady Vols to two of the first three NCAA Final Fours, finishing runnersup to Southern California in 1984. That summer, Summitt returned to L.A. and coached the U.S. national team to the gold medal at the 1984 Olympic Games.
The 1986-87 season proved historic for Summitt and Tennessee, as she claimed her 300th career victory and guided the Lady Vols, led by forward Bridgette Gordon and guard Tonya Edwards, to their first national title. Two years later, again led by Gordon and Edwards, Tennessee won title No. 2.
The 1990s proved hugely successful for Summitt and Tennessee, as they won national titles in 1991 (with All American Daedra Charles) and from 1996 to ’98, becoming the first women’s basketball team to win three national championships in a row.
Chamique Holdsclaw was the backbone of those three titles, and she was joined by freshmen Catchings and Semeka Randall as the Lady Vols cruised to a 39-0 record en route to title No. 6, setting a record for most wins by a women’s team in a single season.
Despite reaching the Final Four five times, the Lady Vols went eight seasons without another national title. During that time, however, Summitt passed Jody Conradt in March 2002 as the all-time leader in women’s Division I wins with her 788th win. In March 2005, she passed Dean Smith’s Division I record for wins with her 880th career victory.
In 2006, Summitt received a six-year contract extension and became the first women’s basketball coach to break through the million dollar salary level with an annual total compensation package of $1.125 million.
The following year, Summitt celebrated the 20th anniversary of Tennessee’s first national championship by returning to the top of the sport behind sophomore All-American Candace Parker. Summitt won her final championship — No. 8 – in 2008.
After earning career win No. 1,000 in 2009, Tennessee gave Summitt a $200,000 bonus and awarded her with a contract extension through 2014. After revealing that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Summitt continued to coach the team through the 2011-12 season and reached the Elite 8.
After the season, Summitt announced she would step aside — finishing with a career record of 1,098-208 (.841) with longtime assistant Holly Warlick taking over as head coach.
After stepping aside, Summitt was honored by the university with a bronze statue on Pat Summitt Plaza and was given the title of head coach emeritus for as long as she agreed to the role. Former players and colleagues said Summitt’s fight against early onset Alzheimer’s disease through her foundation the Pat Summitt Foundation surpassed even her accomplishments as a coach.
“On a scale of what’s real life, what she’s done for people by raising awareness and dollars and putting the foundation (together) is much more impactful than what her record might have been,” former Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer said in July 2015.
Graham Hays and The Associated Press contributed to this report.