Remembering Pat Summitt, the Greatest Basketball Coach of All Time
I had the honor of working with Pat Summitt several times over the years, and with her passing, I think it’s important to remember her contributions as being as important off the court as on the court. There’s a strong argument that she was the greatest basketball coach of all time, regardless of gender. I had the pleasure of working very briefly with Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski and they both might have recognized Pat Summitt as being their superior (partly because neither one of these coaches has/had a huge ego). I have never met John Wooden. She was the winningest basketball coach in the history of major college basketball because she was a winner.
When I first started working with Coach Summitt, I was a TV reporter and anchor in Knoxville, Tennessee, and because she was a recent breast cancer survivor at that time, I encouraged her to advocate for other women. This was in the mid-80’s, and this kind of advocacy was not common place. It wasn’t a comfortable subject for her to talk about, but she agreed to speak out to help other women, to encourage mammograms, self-examinations and early detection. It’s hard to say how many lives that saved in middle Tennessee and beyond, but it’s just a small part of her incredible legacy.
At that point in time, I had no idea I would have a daughter who played basketball. While I certainly respected Coach Summitt’s record, I had no idea of what it was like to coach women’s basketball or the unique challenges coaches and players face in that sport, and what it really took to play for Pat as a Lady Vol.
But lo and behold, as my youngest entered middle school, it was clear she was a bit of a basketball prodigy, no thanks to me, really, but I encouraged it because she enjoyed the game and it came naturally to her. Suddenly, I found myself becoming an AAU Girls Basketball Coach. My kid was one of the best players on the team, so parents thought I must be a great coach. I could actually visualize coaching boys, but girls have a different mindset, different strengths and weaknesses. As I progressed in my coaching career I met a lot of national championship AAU coaches, NBA players, WNBA players and others who had unique insights into the physical and psychological aspects of the girls’ game.
We had the chance to attend a few of Pat Summitt’s basketball camps at the University of Tennessee and they were amazing. Though some years it seemed like there were thousands of girls there, it seemed Pat made time to spend a few minutes at least with every girl individually. For the first time, I was able to appreciate Pat Summitt’s coaching prowess from a very different perspective. (To anyone who has ever watched a basketball game, try coaching one, it really changes how you look at the sport). My daughter loved Pat Summitt and even got to know her son Tyler, who coached her during one of the tournaments.
Most of Pat’s camp was focused on the young athletes, but she would occasionally let other coaches sit in. I saw her do a one-hour presentation on the topic of “transition defense” and was expecting it to be fairly rudimentary based on her audience of teenage girls, but it was beyond college level in concept and intensity. As a sports producer, I have been able to sit in on some coaching sessions with NBA greats like Phil Jackson and Chuck Daly and her defensive philosophy was on their level if not beyond. And Phil and Chuck had been talking to grown men, many at least 10-15 years older than these girls. And yet, Pat Summitt made herself understood.
When it comes to Pat Summitt, all the accolades are deserved. In all honesty, all the great things said about her don’t really do her justice. There’s a reason the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame is in Knoxville. It was built there long before Pat Summitt was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Her legacy was already for the ages and she lives on in the thousands if not millions of people she coached, influenced and inspired.