I was born and raised in the north Georgia mountains where the only thing people love more than Jesus is college football. They taught us the University of Georgia fight song in school, right along with the Pledge of Allegiance, and even our Baptist church services included a moment or two to talk about quarterback recruiting or Saturday’s game. “Dawg Country” is what people say. “We bleed red and black!” But those aren’t my colors. My colors are University of Tennessee orange and powder blue.
It was my dad who introduced me to Pat Summitt, from a newspaper article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when I was 10 years old. He understood something I wouldn’t understand for a long, long time: That I was different. Not just because I preferred overalls to dresses and basketballs to dolls — but because I preferred girls to boys. Somehow he knew I was never going to grow out of any of those things, and he also knew I was going to need a hero to get me through.
Last week, when Pat Summitt announced that she was stepping down as the University of Tennessee head coach after 38 years, due to her very public early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis, it felt an awful lot like being punched in the heart.
Here are the things people will be saying about Pat Summitt for generations: That she is the winningest coach in NCAA basketball history; that she brought eight NCAA National Championships home to Knoxville, more than any other women’s coach; that she medaled in the Olympics as both a player and a coach; that she graduated 100 percent of the players who completed eligibility with the Lady Vols; that she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, by President Obama.
It’s a tidy, inspiring paragraph, all of it true — but Pat Summitt is so much more than that.
Summitt grew up on a farm in east Tennessee, baling hay with her brothers in the day and shooting hoops in the barn with them at night. She played college ball at UT-Martin and took the head coaching job at the University of Tennessee almost immediately upon graduating. In the early days of her coaching career, she did the team’s laundry, drove the team’s bus, taught physical education classes, and rehabbed an injured knee by herself in the gym late at night so she’d have a shot at making the United States Olympic team.
There was no towering figure of feminism and athleticism for Summitt to look up to when she was a growing up. Most girls simply did not go to college on athletic scholarships. But in her quest for personal excellence, Summitt was instrumental in changing all of that. She became the kind of coach she wanted to be, and the entire sport of women’s basketball came along with her.
When the Lady Vols became the best team in the country, it led to women’s basketball getting more recognition and media attention, which led to college teams around the country developing stronger programs, which attracted even more talented athletes, which caused Summitt to adapt her coaching skills to take her team to the next level, which forced other teams to bring their games to the next level. On and on the cycle has gone for 38 years, with Pat Summitt elevating everyone around her.
The first time I met her in person, I was at a summer basketball camp in Thompson-Boling Arena. She smiled at me during a scrimmage game and told me I had a nice cross-over. I have kept her compliment in the front of my mind for almost 20 years. I’ve also kept every newspaper and magazine article I’ve ever read about her. In high school I had three things in my backpack at all times: Her first book, Reach For the Summitt; a copy of the 1998 Sports Illustrated with her face on the cover and the infamous “Eye of the Storm” article inside; and a VHS tape of the 1997 HBO documentary, A Cinderella Season. My friends looked to the Bible for hope and comfort; I looked to Pat. (Pretty soon I’ll be adding her memoir to my sacred collection.)
I still own a lot of orange, an entire closet full of Lady Vols paraphernalia, but I also still live just outside the University of Georgia. For practically my whole life strangers have been playfully jeering at me when they catch a glimpse of my bright orange ball caps and t-shirts. Folks here hate the UT football team, and for a long time it didn’t matter when I tried to explain that my UT support was all women’s basketball. But in recent years, something has shifted. People sing “Glory, glory to Old Georgia, and to hell with Tennessee!” and I say “Pat Summitt!” and the response is always a high five.
Because Pat Summitt means something even to people who don’t know anything else about women’s basketball. She means NCAA National Championships, sure. But she also means grace and generosity and class. After she announced that she’d been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s last August, dudes would Dawg-bark at the car wash or the gas station or the grocery store, and I’d say “Pat Summitt,” and they’d be overcome with reverence and awe. “I hope she wins one more title,” they’d say. “What a lady.”
For nearly four decades, Pat Summitt hasn’t just coached women’s basketball; Pat Summitt has been women’s basketball. She has changed the lives of the 117 women who played for her and the lives of countless girls who grew up adoring her. She has changed the hearts and minds of people who have never even heard of Title IX. She has changed the very nature of women’s athletics.
As for me, the closeted little gay girl with gangly arms and dirt under her fingernails, Summitt once wrote: “When you chose to be a competitor, you choose to be a survivor.”
And so I survived.
Her head coaching presence will be sorely missed, but her legacy is like her icy blue sideline stare: Even after she looks away, we’ll still feel the burn.