(editor’s note: published on April 18, 2012)
Today is a sad day not only in the state of Tennessee but across the nation. Pat Summitt, all of 59 years young, 8 national championships, nearly 1,100 wins (most all-time, men or women) and countless branches on her coaching tree, stepped down from being the Lady Vol head coach. Coach Summitt’s associate head coach, Holly Warlick, will take over the reigns full-time. Head Coach Emeritus is the new title that Coach Summitt has earned. Just like everything else she has done in her career, I am sure that she’ll be the best at this position.
What follows are just a couple of reasons why she may just be the best coach ever…in any sport. I can hear the outcries now…what about Lombardi? What about Wooden? What about Bear Bryant? No argument from me that if there was a Mount Rushmore of Coaches, they’d certainly be considered. However, I have no doubt whatsoever that Coach Summitt’s likeness would be etched in stone…and not just because she is the best female coach or the best coach of a female sport.
- She Humbly Understands Her Importance–In meeting a new woman in the movie Anchorman, Ron Burgundy, proudly proclaims “I am what you call a big deal around here. People know me!” Like the anchorman, Coach Summitt may be a big deal but unlike the anchorman, she is humble in her actions. I have seen Coach Summitt on multiple occasions working intensely trying to run a camp or evaluate a prospect at an event when somebody approaches her for an autograph or picture. Not only does she grant the request, she does it with a pep in her step, a smile, and a genuinely positive attitude. She didn’t become the first millionaire women’s coach just because she won. She was also worth that money because she is a brand. She is a larger than life figure that provides hope and an example to thousands of people per year (plus she is not afraid to don a cheerleader outfit on occasion). It is no coincidence that the Lady Vols are at the top of the nation year in and year out in attendance, as well as occupying quite a few seats on the road. In addition, her players have become an extension of her in the community and the arenas. They are well-mannered and always willing to show appreciation to fans. This past October, we took a four-hour trip to Knoxville to visit the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (one of our players, Vee Young, has her jersey hanging up) and to watch a Lady Vol practice. After the practice was finished, Coach Summit came over to our group and talked to them for a few minutes. She then volunteered to take a picture with us. This was a highlight for so many of our players that grew up Lady Vol fans. This was after a tough early season practice and less than two months after the announcement of early onset dementia. Why did she spend time with us? Because Coach Summitt knows no other way to act. Coach Summitt has that special gift of making fans of all ages, shapes and sizes feel a part of the program.
- The Lady Was Tough–Coach Summitt’s players were first-class and were certainly “Lady” Vols off-the-court. However, on the court, Coach Summitt treated them like athletes. They were competitors because she was a competitor. She didn’t have time for excuses and preached taking responsibility for actions. It wasn’t okay to miss a layup or turn the ball over just because you were a girl. Be a player. Be a champion. Arguably, the Lady Vols were the flagship program of women’s athletics for the past 30+ years. However, they rebounded and defended like they were backed into a corner and had to scrape and claw their way out. For years, Lady Vol players demonstrated how you could be a female and at the same time still sweat, bleed, and compete at the highest levels of athletics. I love the story about her being on a recruiting home visit when she went into labor. Just the thought of working away from home that close to the due date is pretty incredible. She was tough enough to not have the baby (Tyler) until she was back in Tennessee. Some might roll their eyes as if she had anything to do with that, but anyone that has followed her career will know that with Coach Summitt, it is hard to discount any story about her toughness or business like approach. Additionally, think about her career at UT and how many teams she coached and how many players took to the court. You would be hard pressed to find examples of idiots or criminals. Instead you find example after example of Academic All-Americans, future coaches, fine citizens and first-class student-athletes. That consistency is amazing and demonstrates why the Lady Vol brand has lasted and flourished for so long.
- She Surrounded Herself with Winners–Think about the last few coaches that have been a part of her staff. It has been a who’s who of basketball coaching respectability. Some may not be household names to the average basketball fan, but to the diehards, her staff have represented a sort of all-star team. Coming into this year, her three assistants were Holly Warlick, serving more than 30 years as a Lady Vol coach and player; Mickie DeMoss, former head coach at Kentucky and Florida; and Dean Lockwood, a men’s college head coach for 12 years, in addition to a men’s assistant at Tennessee, Central Michigan and Army. If you watch them practice or observe the behavior on the bench during games, it doesn’t take long to notice that they know what they are doing. They are not “yes” people; they are solution people. They are successful people. That is who Coach Summitt surrounds herself with. My fellow Michigander, Dean Lockwood, once told me that there are few things out there that could pull him away from working with Coach Summitt. He didn’t say “for”. He said “with”. He couldn’t say enough about her and the trust she bestowed upon her assistants and the loyalty that they felt from her. And this was all before she gave them each a brand new Mercedes Benz. When Stephanie Glance, the long-time associate head coach for Kay Yow was passed over for the full-time job at NC State, Coach Summitt hired her on staff. She was overqualified, but Coach Summitt wanted another great mind around her and Coach Glance probably wanted to work for a great “boss”. Even the last few coaches to leave all did so for head coaching positions (Nikki Caldwell–UCLA; Stephanie Glance–Illinois State; Mickie DeMoss–Kentucky/Indiana Fever).
At the end of the day, what makes Coach Summitt the greatest is that she achieved unparalleled success on the court while doing it without even a hint of inappropriateness. Nearly every positive leadership and coaching characteristic could and has been applied to her. She is a model for so many people in some many walks of life. Even the grace and strength of character she has shown during the last year has been impressive. She didn’t hang on like a pro athlete clinging to something that he once was. Coach Summitt didn’t embarrass herself or lose touch with the game. Yes, this talented senior class did not achieve all that was expected of them, but in all fairness they were still very successful. Losing to eventual national runner-up Notre Dame last year and this year, bowing out to the eventual National Champion, Baylor Bears, is not at all a failure. Coach Summitt might not have won a championship in her last year, but she certainly went out as a champion.