How Pat Summitt helped women’s athletics reach new heights

Coach Summitt's legendary fierceness and icy personality on the sidelines made her an icon in women's sports.

Bradley Bower/Reuters/File
University of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt shouts directions to her players in a 2005 game against Texas Tech.

Pat Sue Head Summitt, an icon of women's basketball who died Tuesday, shepherded the sport into national prominence in her nearly four decades as head coach for the University of Tennessee. 

Born in 1952 in Clarksville, Tenn., Summitt grew up on a dairy farm in Henrietta, an upbringing she would later credit for her legendary tenacity. After attending college at the University of Tennessee-Martin, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education, she took a job in 1974 as the 22-year-old head coach of the women's basketball team at the university's Knoxville campus.

Title IX, the federal law that laid the groundwork for an enormous expansion in sports programs for women, had gone into effect just two years earlier. The women's basketball program was still a bare-bones operation then: Summitt was responsible for everything from driving the team bus to washing uniforms, and she later recalled occasions when the team spent the night in the opposing team's gym.

"[Title IX] just opened the doors for a lot of players that wanted to play basketball," Summitt told NPR in 2013. "We didn't have to go play with the guys. We just did what we wanted to do."

As women's sports grew in popularity, Summitt would emerge as a particularly iconic face of women's college basketball. Her fierceness, along with the stony glare she would fix on players who disappointed her, was her trademark. So was her success as head coach: Under her 38 seasons of stewardship, the Lady Vols won 1,098 times, more than any other Division I basketball coach, and took home eight national titles. And Summitt herself won seven NCAA Coach of the Year awards, and in 2000 was named Naismith Coach of the Century.

"I think she brought the women's college game from the back page to the front page," said Los Angeles Sparks coach Brian Agler in an interview with ABC News. "The Tennessee program, they were really the foundation that the modern era of women's basketball was built on."

"I've coached several Tennessee players, and they keep her in such high regard after they've left.... She challenged them to be great people and great players, and they have so much respect for her."

She also made her presence felt on the international stage, earning an Olympic silver medal as a player in 1976 and coaching the US women's team to a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Summitt is survived by her son Tyler Summit, born in 1990. When her water broke on a recruiting trip in Pennsylvania, she didn't cut the visit short. Once on board the plane home, however, she directed the pilots not to stop, so that her son would be born in her beloved home state.

In a statement, her son said she died in Sherrill Hill Senior Living in Knoxville, surrounded by loved-ones. Since 2011, her last season as coach of the Lady Vols, Summit had been faced with "her toughest opponent" – she was diagnosed with early-onset dementia.

"She did so with bravely fierce determination just as she did with every opponent she ever faced," the statement read. "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."

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