Pat Summitt, the steely-eyed women’s basketball coach with an intolerance of anything short of excellence, was remembered Tuesday as a national treasure, enduring role model, ultimate champion and, above all, for elevating notions of what was possible for female athletes in all sports.
Summitt, who led Tennessee women’s basketball to eight national championships, died Tuesday morning at age 64 after a five-year battle with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
President Obama offered condolences in a statement lauding her achievements.
“Nobody walked off a college basketball court victorious more times than Tennessee’s Pat Summitt. For four decades, she outworked her rivals, made winning an attitude, loved her players like family, and became a role model to millions of Americans, including our two daughters,” Obama said, noting that the Lady Vols never recorded a losing season under her watch and that 100 percent of her players who completed their athletic eligibility went on to graduate.
“Her legacy, however,” Obama continued, “is measured much more by the generations of young women and men who admired Pat’s intense competitiveness and character, and as a result found in themselves the confidence to practice hard, play harder, and live with courage on and off the court.”
The sentiments were echoed on social media, TV and radio broadcasts by politicians, former peers and rivals alike, along with legions of admirers throughout the sporting world.
Said Maryland women’s basketball Coach Brenda Frese: “Just like a lot of young girls, I grew up admiring Coach Summitt and she’s a big reason I’m in this business. Her legacy will live on and she will be missed.”
Connecticut women’s basketball Coach Geno Auriemma, her chief rival, called her “the defining figure” of her sport on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” adding: “A lot of people coach the game, but very few people get to define the game.”
Former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning, who developed a close relationship with Summitt during his career at Tennessee, told The Post’s Sally Jenkins on Tuesday morning: “I was coached by a lot of great men, but I always wanted the experience of being coached by Pat Summitt. I envied her players and what they had with her. It’s why I sought her out as a friend.”
Duke football Coach David Cutcliffe, who worked alongside Summitt for 19 years while an assistant on Tennessee’s football staff, paid eloquent tribute to a woman he characterized as “an iconic coach” and “incredible educator.”
“Pat’s ability to motivate young women within the team concept while incorporating life lessons was one of the many things I admired about her,” Cutcliffe said. “And I don’t know if anyone has done it with more class, humility and success than she did. Every coach and educator should have a heavy heart today — she will be missed dearly.”
“Pat Summitt was an iconic figure in college basketball,” Georgetown basketball Coach John Thompson III said. “She was a tremendous coach, leader and motivator. Her commitment to excellence and the success of her teams and players, both on and off the floor, left a mark not only on the college basketball world, but in the lives of so many people across the country.”
Football coach Steve Spurrier, who once had Summitt speak to his Redskins squad, and current and former NFL players Emmitt Smith, Reggie Bush and Russell Wilson added their own tributes.
And Tennessee Vice Chancellor and Athletic Director Dave Hart hailed her as “a global icon who transcended sports and spent her entire life making a difference in other people’s lives.”
Diagnosed in spring 2011 at age 58, Summitt coached one more season before stepping down in April 2012, assuming the title of “head coach emeritus.” She had kept a low profile since, remaining largely out of the public eye as the disease progressed.
During her struggle, Duke men’s basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski proclaimed her “the gold standard of women’s basketball” and one the great coaches in all sports. “What she did with recruiting, accomplishment, championships really set the foundation for where women’s basketball is in our country right now,” Krzyzewski said.
As news of Summitt’s precipitous decline spread among those closest to her, former players including Candace Parker, Tamika Catchings, Michelle Marciniak and Nikki Caldwell traveled to Knoxville to visit one last time.
“She is a legend and has touched so many lives,” said Parker, who plays for the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, after the visit. “She changes the individual, and she has changed the way that I have looked at life, and she has changed the way all of her players have.”
Public acknowledgement of her precarious state came Sunday morning, when the foundation that bears her name and supports Alzheimer’s research released a statement confirming that the past few days “had been difficult” and seeking prayers and privacy.
Athletes and coaches from across the sporting world responded, voicing their love, support and gratitude via the hashtag #PrayforPat. Among those paying tribute were Tennessee football Coach Butch Jones, Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs and former Connecticut players who had battled Summitt’s Lady Vols, including Swin Cash of the WNBA’s New York Liberty. “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts, a basketball standout at Southeastern Louisiana, wore orange on Monday’s program as a show of support and eulogized the late coach on Tuesday’s broadcast.
Summitt’s son, Tyler, released a statement early Tuesday announcing that his mother had died peacefully at Sherrill Hill Senior Living in Knoxville, surrounded by loved ones.
Summitt was a 20-year-old basketball standout at Tennessee-Martin when Title IX, the federal legislation guaranteeing equal opportunity in athletics and education, was enacted in 1972. And her achievements as a coach unfolded in step with the pioneering law. But for Summitt, the equality that Title IX promised was hardly her life’s goal. Her aspiration and expectation — both for herself and for the athletes she coached — was to be the best. As a player on Summitt’s squads, only excellence would do.
Summitt’s 1,098 college basketball victories are more than any coach, man or woman, in NCAA Division I sports. She coached 20 all-Americans and spawned a pipeline of more than 70 former players and assistants who went on to coach basketball in the high school, college and pro ranks.
On the international stage, she was the first U.S. Olympian to win medals as both a player (silver, 1976) and coach (gold, 1984). That was but one among a list of “firsts” could fill a stack of résumés.
She was the first women’s college basketball coach and fourth overall to win 800 games, the first college women’s basketball coach to earn a $1 million salary and the first women’s basketball coach to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Named Naismith Women’s Collegiate Coach of the Century in 2000, she was bestowed with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, in ceremonies at the White House in 2012.
Initial indications that something was awry with Summitt’s mental state were easily rationalized. She had always had trouble misplacing her car keys and cellphone. But it was cause for concern when the coach so adamant about punctuality started forgetting times she had set for team meetings. Most notably, the coach who was so commanding on the sideline seemed hesitant about her play-calling.
The diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s followed a battery of tests at the Mayo Clinic and came as a shock. With the support of Tennessee’s president, she resolved to continue coaching, aided by three trusted assistants. “A pity-party is a waste of time,” Summitt told the Tennessean at the time. “It doesn’t do any good to feel sorry for yourself.”
But after one season under the arrangement, she announced in April 2012, eight months after disclosing her diagnosis, that she would step aside as head basketball coach after 38 seasons. Summitt concluded her head coaching career with a 1,098-208 record and an .841 winning percentage.
Yet even as the glittering statistics and specifics of her coaching career faded from memory because of her illness, Summitt retained the essence of her achievement and her bond with four decades of players.
“My memories are not so much made up of information, but rather of episodes and engagements with the people I love,” Summitt wrote in her 2013 biography “Sum it Up,” the last of three books co-written with Jenkins. “The things I struggle with — times, dates, schedules — are things you could as easily read on a digital watch or a calendar. But people and emotions are engraved in me.”