Pioneer spirit

Pat Summitt became an icon, even if she didn't intend to be

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There’s a little story about Pat Summitt that I think of now. A young and nervous reporter was interviewing her one day in Knoxville back in the mid-1990s. It was after she had already become a legend. She had led Tennessee to two or three of what would eventually be eight national championships. She had been an All-American player and coached the first U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal.  She had changed the very ethos of women’s sports in America.

And the reporter stammered a question about being a pioneer.

“Pioneer?” Summitt asked back. “I don’t have time for that.”

She did not have time for that; I suppose the real pioneers never do. They’re too busy living.

You look back at the life of Pat Summitt and you see the modern history of women’s basketball right before your eyes. Her father, Richard Head, was a tough and silent old dairy and tobacco farmer, county water commissioner and general store owner in Clarksville, TN, and he believed with the Methodists’ fury that a girl could do everything as well as a boy.

This played out in various ways. He often whipped Pat (then known as Trish), and whipped her harder if she cried. She would sometimes tell the story of being a 12-year-old, and having her father drop her off in a field of hay. He handed her a rake, and said without any further instruction: “Do it.” She would remember that days would go by where her father did not say a single word to her.

Pat Summitt would say that she and her father did not hug until she was 43 years old.

But, he also built a basketball hoop on top of the hayloft, and he moved the family to nearby Henrietta because the high school in Clarksville did not have a girls basketball team. It was before Title IX, before women could earn athletic scholarships, before the NCAA took women’s basketball under its banner. Patricia Sue “Trish” Head was a fantastic high school basketball player, one of the nation’s best. The family pulled together enough money to send her to college at Tennessee-Martin.

“I thought,” Summitt would write, “‘This needs to change.'”

Of course, lots of people THOUGHT that. But how do you change things? Summitt had no idea; she just kept living. She became a star basketball player at Tennessee-Martin, an All-American. She built a dream of playing on the first U.S. Olympic basketball team in 1976, a dream that seemed shattered when she blew out her anterior cruciate ligament in a game against Austin Peay her senior year. “Fix it right,” Richard Head barked at the surgeon, this in the day when no one really knew how to fix ACLs. The surgeon did the best he could, and Pat trained and rehabilitated through unspeakable agony, and she became a captain on that first Olympic team. The team won the silver medal.

Eight years later, with Summitt coaching, they won gold.

While she was training for the Olympic team, she suddenly and rather bizarrely became head basketball coach at Tennessee. She had been hired to be a graduate assistant coach to the successful Margaret Hutson (60-18 in her two years at the school), but then Hutson suddenly decided to take a sabbatical (she went on to be a successful volleyball coach and she founded the athletic training program at Emory and Henry). The school asked Pat Head to be head coach. She was making $250 a month. Best anyone can tell, her hire was not mentioned in a single newspaper.

But that’s how it was for women’s basketball then. She was hired to be Tennessee’s women’s basketball coach because nobody at Tennessee cared about women’s basketball then. The year before Pat arrived, the team had sold doughnuts to raise the money to buy uniforms. She would remember that in her first years the women’s athletic budget — for all six women’s sports at Tennessee — was a robust $5,000, and on the rare occasions when her team actually stayed in a hotel on road trips, they would sleep four in each room.

“I could have gotten angry about it,” she and her biographer Sally Jenkins wrote in the fantastic book “Reach for the Summitt,” “But getting angry wasn’t going to help. I had to work smart. Maybe I should have shouted and waved around a copy of Title IX on principle. But I genuinely felt that that would have set our cause back.”

“Pioneer? I don’t have time for that.”

MORE: Summitt a legendary Olympian | Never stopped striving for greatness | Summitt’s milestone moments 

She had no idea how to be a coach — Summitt had never coached a team in her life. It was like being dropped off in the field of hay all over again. But some people are just born to lead. Her teams went 32-19 her first two years. They reached the Final Four of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) tournament in her third year. Yes, this was STILL before the NCAA had sanctioned women’s basketball.

The anecdotes of Summitt’s intensity are famous now. There was the time after a dreadful loss at South Carolina when she told her players to keep their uniforms rather than turn them in to the team managers to be washed. When they got back to Tennessee, Summitt told her players to put those uniforms back on. Then, they went straight from the airport to the gym, and then they practiced harder than anyone could remember. “You’re going to play 40 minutes in those uniforms,” she shouted at them. “You didn’t do it yesterday so you’re going to do it today.”

That story about Pat Summitt is now so familiar that even if you never heard it, you’ve heard it. That is to say that Summitt’s fiery glare on the sidelines, her furious drive for perfection, her unique ability to be both uncompromising and loving have marked the times. Every player who was recruited by her or faced her team, every reporter who covered her, every coach who competed against her, every fan who crossed paths with her has something to hold on to.

“If it’s true (that) ‘A heart is not judged by how much you love but by how much you are loved by others,'” ESPN’s unparalleled women’s basketball writer Mechelle Voepel tweeted out, “Pat Summitt has (an) infinity-sized heart.”

I think that says everything. Summitt’s numbers and honors stagger the imagination — 1,098 wins, eight national titles, 16-time SEC champion, seven-time national coach of the year, Naismith coach of the 20th Century, Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, on and on and on.

And to those of us lucky enough to have met Pat Summitt, to have talked with her, the honors and achievements never could sum up the power of her presence. She died on Tuesday at 64 years old, and when I heard I went back to that book, “Reach for the Summitt,” one I often turned to through the years. And I typed in a search for the words: “I believe.”

Here’s what came back.

“I believe,” she wrote, “you get what you deserve.”

“I believe,” she wrote, “you press a pressing team.”

“I believe,” she wrote, “that with practice, you can literally control your heart and pulse.”

“I believe,” she wrote, “in calculated gambles.”

“I believe in God,” she wrote.

“I believe,” she wrote, “you get what you expect.”