My wife was an all-state soccer player in Vermont. One of my daughters was recently named to the “Best of Preps” All-Metro softball team. My other daughter completed middle school in May having won no fewer than six county championships (three in soccer, three in softball). For two generations, this has seemed like the natural order of things for female athletes. When Pat Summitt coached her first basketball game at the University of Tennessee in 1974, it wasn’t natural, and there was no order.
Summitt died early Tuesday at the age of 64 after a painfully brief battle with Alzheimer’s disease (diagnosed in 2011). Arguably the most significant woman in college sports history, Summitt won more game (1,098) than any Division I coach, male or female. She led the Lady Vols to eight national championships, including a 1997-98 season in which Tennessee went 39-0. Summitt was named Sportswoman of the Year by Sports Illustrated in 2011 and was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama the next year. Perhaps most impressive of all, over Summitt’s 38 years as Tennessee’s coach, every player who stayed with her program four years left UT with a degree.
My parents met at the University of Tennessee in the early 1960s and I was born in Knoxville (even before Summitt won her first game). I’ve got orange in my blood. While my parents were both only children, I’ve long considered a certain coach “Aunt Pat.” And 18 years ago, I came one appendectomy away from finally meeting her.
In late-April 1998, shortly after completing that undefeated season, Summitt came to Memphis on a book tour, promoting Reach for the Summitt, a motivational guide for achievement written by a farm girl from Clarksville, Tennessee, who could motivate with merely a few seconds of The Glare. So piercing, so physical, Summitt’s blue eyes delivered messages to her players that needed no supplemental verbiage. (I often wondered how a heavyweight champion would handle Coach Summitt in a pre-match stare down. Actually, I know who’d blink.) I made plans to get in line at what was then called Davis-Kidd Booksellers and finally shake the hand of Aunt Pat.
It wasn’t meant to be. Stabbing pain the morning of Coach Summitt’s visit led me to Methodist University Hospital where I ended up on a surgeon’s table right about the time the author began greeting her fans in east Memphis. When I awoke, though, my wife — that all-state soccer player, remember — had a signed copy of Summitt’s book waiting in my room. “To Frank and Sharon, Pat Summitt.” She had made it to the book signing and back to the hospital in time to greet her appendix-free husband with a gift for the ages. I like to envision Summitt giving Sharon The Glare when she learned of my wife’s double-duty that day.
My first daughter arrived in 1999. Among Sofia’s first major sporting events — before her first birthday — was a 2000 NCAA tournament game at the Pyramid, a Lady Vols win over Virginia. (Tennessee fell short that March in its attempt to win four straight NCAA titles.) That was the closest Sofia came to meeting Pat Summitt. The best we can do now is a pilgrimage to the larger-than-life-sized statue now standing on the UT campus, a trip we’ll make soon.
Every Lady Vols media guide includes “Coach Summitt’s Definite Dozen,” instructions not just for being a championship-caliber basketball player, but a human being capable of making an impact on others. Among them:
• Develop and demonstrate loyalty.
• Discipline yourself so no one else has to.
• Make hard work your passion.
• Put the team before yourself.
• Change is a must.
• Handle success like you handle failure.
Not long after I became a father, I wrote Aunt Pat a letter, emphasizing how I intended to incorporate many of her standards in raising my own daughter (soon enough, two daughters). She replied with the signed photo you see here (two national championships still in her future). My daughters didn’t turn into basketball players, and they’ll never feel The Glare personally. But rest assured, Pat Summitt has influenced them. They’re athletes, you see. Young women practicing daily perhaps the most valuable of Summitt’s “Definite Dozen”: Be a competitor.