Pat Summitt, the groundbreaking former University of Tennessee women’s basketball head coach who claimed eight national titles over 38 seasons, died Tuesday morning. She was 64.
Known for her fiery and disciplined attitude as well as her cold and determined stare, Summitt became the all-time winningest coach in Division I basketball history, with 1,098 career victories. The women’s game, at both the college and professional level, would not be the same without her influence over the last half-decade.
Summitt retired from coaching five years ago after she was diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.
"Since 2011, my mother has battled her toughest opponent, early onset dementia, 'Alzheimer's type,' and she did so with bravely fierce determination just as she did with every opponent she ever faced," Summitt’s son, Tyler, said in a statement. "Even though it's incredibly difficult to come to terms that she is no longer with us, we can all find peace in knowing she no longer carries the heavy burden of this disease."
Summitt morphed the Lady Volunteers into a perennial powerhouse while claiming three of her eight titles between 1996 and 1998. She also amassed seven NCAA Coach of the Year honors and 22 trips to the Final Four. In 1984, she lead the U.S. women's Olympic team to a gold medal.
During her career, much was made of her intense rivalry with UConn head coach Geno Auriemma. The two were often at odds, but Auriemma recently described Summitt as "synonymous with women's basketball."
"She was the one that everyone tried to emulate. That was the program everyone tried to be," Auriemma told the Associated Press.
Devoted to her players and the game, she made sure every member of the Lady Vols graduated or worked to get a degree. Also known for her outspokenness, she was capable of cutting straight to the heart of the matter and never holding back. When she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's, the Hall of Fame coach vowed to keep coaching, claiming "This is not a pity party."
“I remember every single player — every single one — who wore the Tennessee orange, a shade that our rivals hate, a bold, aggravating color that you usually can find on a roadside work crew, ‘or in a correctional institution,’ as my friend [former Old Dominion coach] Wendy Larry jokes," Summitt said in one of her three books co-written with Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins.
“But to us, the color is a flag of pride because it identifies us as Lady Vols, and therefore, as women of an unmistakable type: fighters. I remember how many of them fought for a better life for themselves. I just met them halfway.”
She also offered words of wisdom about life off the court. “Life. It gives you vision. But you can’t acquire it if you’re afraid of keeping score," and “Success is a project that’s always under construction" are among the quotes that made her an enduring figure to her former players and the wider community.
"Coach Summitt is an A-plus-plus-plus person," former player Chamique Holdsclaw said at a charity event in 2015. "They don't really make people like that anymore."