Legendary Tennessee women’s basketball head coach Pat Summitt, who helped elevate women’s athletics in America and won more games than any other Division I college basketball coach in history, died Tuesday at the age of 64.
Summitt announced in 2011 that she’d been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, and retired in 2012 after serving as head of the Lady Vols basketball program for 38 years. In that time, she won eight national championships, was named national coach of the year seven times, and coached 21 All-Americans.
We asked Northeastern faculty and staff to reflect on Summitt’s legacy and her place in the pantheon of women’s sports.
Betsy Devine, assistant director for athletic communications
I was lucky enough in my sports information career to earn my first full-time job at the University of Tennessee in 2012, just months after Pat stepped down in her final season as head coach of the Lady Vols.
Pat could always still be found in Thompson Boling Arena where the team practiced keeping a watchful eye on her protégé and dear friend Holly Warlick, who took over for Pat as head coach.
Pat was a presence. Ultimately that presence was set in stone, or in this case bronze.
I was there for the Summitt Plaza dedication on the Tennessee campus in November 2013. I think I had tears in my eyes throughout the entire ceremony. The undying love that her (basketball) family and the city of Knoxville will always have for Pat is a testament to how she lived her life.
She did her job selflessly, she loved her players endlessly, and her fight for equality changed the sports world forever. Her presence was felt the entire time I was in Knoxville. And it will continue to be felt forever.
Roger Abrams, Richardson Professor of Law and a leading authority on sports and labor law
Coach Summitt demonstrated to the sporting public that excellence is not gender based. Her Tennessee Lady Vols were perennial conference champions and annual competitors for the national crown. She made women’s basketball a major attraction on campus, recruiting the best high school players and molding them into a team of winners. The sports world deeply mourns her passing.
Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society
Pat Summitt is synonymous with all the greatness, history, heroism, and social justice impact that is Title IX. Her iconic status transcends her multiple national championships, her redefining of the women’s game, and her demanding and disciplined approach to raising the bar of expectation and excellence, not just for women but for all athletes and achievers.
Pat’s legacy is more than prolific. It is transformational.”
Pat didn’t just usher in the era of equality in collegiate athletics. She knocked down the door of inequity with a mastery of coaching—equal parts mindfulness, motivation, and mentoring—all of which demanded our collective attention, our collective conversation, and our collective acknowledgement of the greatness that is women sports.
Pat’s legacy is more than prolific. It is transformational. It is the front-page news that is women’s achievement, basketball and beyond. It is the television must-see event that is the Women’s World Cup, U.S. vs. Canada Olympic hockey, and UConn-Tennessee in the NCAA tournament. It is the Golden State Warriors’ do-everything forward Draymond Green exclaiming during this year’s NBA Playoffs, “I watch the WNBA because I learn fundamentals, skills, styles of play, and moves from the WNBA players.”
Yet, more importantly, it is the long overdue conversations we, in the collective community of humanity, are having both nationally and worldwide about issues including, but not limited to, gender equity, pay equity, domestic violence and sexual assault prevention, and the great possibility of the first female president of the United States. That is the breadth of greatness of the legend, the legacy, and the lifetime achievement that was, is, and will always remain Pat Summitt.
Charles Fountain, associate professor in the School of Journalism
I think a comparison might be made to John Wooden of the great UCLA men’s basketball dynasty of the 1960s and 70s. Like Wooden, Pat Summitt was a skilled recruiter, who could attract the best talent to her school and then take that talent and mold it into a championship team. And soon, as with Wooden, an aura grew around her and the Tennessee program. Young women from around the country wanted to play for her, and her success begat more success. But most importantly, as with Wooden, long after they were through playing for her, her players still saw her as their “coach” and counted their years under her tutelage as having shaped all the years that followed.