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Pat Summitt Transcended Women’s Sports

Appreciating the legacy of Tennessee’s legendary coach

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Growing up, Pat Summitt — née Patricia Sue Head, born in Clarksville, Tennessee, in 1952 — wanted to play basketball. But there was no girls’ program in her hometown, so her family moved to nearby Henrietta to find one. Then, as she neared her graduation from Chatham County High School in 1970, she wanted to play basketball in college. But Title IX wouldn’t pass for another two years, so, lacking a scholarship, she chose to pay her own way. Then Summitt wanted to be a coach. But women’s basketball didn’t become an NCAA-sanctioned sport until 1981, so, after accepting a job at Tennessee in 1974 at just 22 years old, she and her players made do: sleeping on mats in opposing gyms, holding doughnut sales to buy uniforms, and wearing the same jerseys game after game — often without washing them — because they had only one set.

The winningest coach in college basketball history died at 64 on Tuesday, five years after being diagnosed with early-onset dementia and four years after departing Tennessee, where she spent 38 seasons as head coach. During that time, Summitt’s teams won eight national titles. In 1997–98, the Lady Vols went 39–0, a feat that dazzled even their competition: After Tennessee sealed the championship by beating Louisiana Tech, 93–75, opposing coach Leon Barmore deemed the team the “best ever.” The Lady Vols never recorded a losing season under Summitt’s watch.

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Getty Images

From her inauspicious beginnings on through a long and storied career, Summitt emerged as one of the most influential figures in the history of women’s sports. And she did it with a brand of feminism best described as: What the hell does it matter? “I remember standing on a medal podium at the 1976 Montreal Olympics,” she wrote in her 2013 memoir, Sum It Up, “imbued with a sense that if you won enough basketball games, there was no such thing as poor, backward, country, female, or inferior.”

With success — the kind of blistering, relentless, unimpeachable success that she drove her teams toward, year after year, decade after decade — Summitt believed she could make gender disappear. Of course a good team was good, she seemed to imply. Who cares if the roster is made up of men or women? She learned as much as a child, playing two-on-two with her older brothers, Tommy, Charles, and Kenneth.

But she never publicly identified as a crusader for women’s athletics. The writer Sally Jenkins, who coauthored Sum It Up, recalled once asking Summitt if she was a feminist.

“I asked Pat if she was a feminist,” Jenkins said. “And she said, ‘No, I’m not a sign carrier.’ And I said, ‘Well, I know what you are — you’re a subversive.’ And she said, ‘That’s exactly right.’ I think Pat took the concept of athletics that was used to define confidence and excellence for men, and stole it and gave it to women.”

Under her watch, Tennessee women’s basketball grew into a powerhouse. Summitt advanced it ferociously, going so far as to carry out a recruiting visit with 16-year-old Michelle Marciniak, who would come to be known as “Spinderella” with the Lady Vols, while she was in labor with her son, Tyler. Summitt then insisted on getting back on her charter plane to Tennessee to make sure her child was born in-state.

The legacy of Summitt, a seven-time NCAA Coach of the Year who produced a plethora of All-Americans, Olympians, and WNBA players, will live on: Her teams have sent more than 70 former players, assistants, and other staff members into jobs coaching in basketball; Summitt alumni currently hold head coaching posts at Kentucky, North Carolina, and LSU, among other schools. In 2011, she was honored as Sports Illustrated’s Sportswoman of the Year; a year later, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

But Summitt might have had her greatest accomplishments in smaller gyms, on playground courts, and on driveways across the country. Boys and girls alike can look at her 1,098 wins and know how much one person can do.