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The ‘single ingredient in leadership,’ according to legendary coach Pat Summitt

Former head coach Pat Summitt of the Tennessee Lady Volunteers celebrates cutting down the net after their 64-48 win against the Stanford Cardinals during the 2008 National Championship Game. (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)
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Eight national championships. Eighteen NCAA Final Fours. 38 years as head coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols. 112 victories in NCAA tournament games. 1,098 total wins.

These are the numbers that define the extraordinary success of legendary women's college basketball coach Pat Summitt's career. It included more wins than any Division I college basketball coach ever -- whether for a men's or women's team.

But as her foundation's obituary notes, the number that mattered most to Summitt, who died Tuesday morning of complications from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, was this one: 161, the number of players she coached during her career as the head coach at the University of Tennessee.

She said as much in her remarkable 2013 book, co-authored with The Washington Post's Sally Jenkins. Summitt wrote about her life, her battle with Alzheimer's and coaching the Lady Vols, where she was known for her tough, exacting coaching style. She famously had what she called a "death ray stare" and stratospheric expectations for her teams; she once made players put their unwashed, sweaty clothes back on and play more after a loss where she wasn't happy with the performance.

"It was supposed to be an elite, demanding environment, and it wasn't right for everybody," she wrote in "Sum It Up." "But it was right for the 161 players who wore the orange, and the real legacy wasn't the victories, but knowing that they were made of something stronger when they left."

She did that through those demanding tactics, which were not just about being tough, or winning games, she said, but about turning young women into selfless, team-driven leaders. In one telling passage in the book, Summitt describes her decision to give Michelle Marciniak, who she called "a headlong, reckless player who needed curbing," the position of starting point guard after the 1994 NCAA tournament. It offers two powerful definitions of leadership and insight into how she thought about molding the elite players she led:

The point guard position in basketball is one of the great tutorials on leadership, and it ought to be taught in classrooms. Anyone can perfect a dribble with muscle memory; very few people are able to organize and direct followers, which is a far more subtle and multifaceted skill. Leadership is really a form of temporary authority that others grant you, and they only follow you if they find you consistently credible. It's all about perception -- and if teammates find you the least bit inconsistent, moody, unpredictable, indecisive or emotionally unreliable, then they balk and the whole team is destabilized.
Most young people are all the things I just listed, and Michelle was no different. If there is a single ingredient in leadership, it's emotional maturity.
Over the next two seasons, I intentionally did everything I could to break Michelle down. Why? Because until she completely surrendered herself and her ego, she wasn't going to become the reliable leader we needed. A willingness to do whatever it is that needs to be done regardless of self-interest is the hallmark of a mature leader.

In the obituaries and eulogies over Summitt's death, many will try to define the kind of pioneering force she was for women's athletics, the record-setter she was, the powerful influence she had on the sport. But perhaps the best way to reflect on the leader she was is to examine how she thought about the leaders she was trying to create -- emotionally mature, consistently credible, selfless young women who put their teammates before themselves.

Read also:

‘The game is never over’: A letter from Pat Summitt to a young basketball player

Pat Summitt's next role

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