It happens – we get older and we forget things, but it felt like more than that in the 2010-11 season when Coach Pat Head Summit, all time most winning coach with 1100 victories in Division I college basketball history (men and women), started blanking out on plays she’d known like clockwork for decades. The Lady Vol’s coach suspected something was wrong and sought medical help and was diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, at the age of 59.
Today, the world lost an incredible woman to this disease – an icon in sports.
Summit was a strong, brilliant, motivational coach that experienced great success – other teams and programs across the country were measured by how they played UT. She had a winning record in the 38 seasons from 1974-2012 and attained eight national championships; surpassing John Wooden of UCLA. She was named NCAA Coach of the Year seven times – she has been, and will always be, the face of women’s basketball.
She was only 22 years old when hired as the Head Coach at UT for $250 per month. She literally drove players to games and was washing uniforms and very few people attended games in her early years at the helm, but wow, she made a mark for dramatic change!
She coached, mentored and was like a mother to over 160 young women athletes in her tenure at UT, many of which went on to coaching careers themselves or players in the WNBA and other leagues, not to mention successful people, in general. While she strived for excellence on the basketball court, and to some she was intimidating, she was also adamant about student athletes getting their college degrees and experienced a 100% graduation rate. Yet, this tower of strength, elegance and leader on the hard wood ultimately was taken by a disease that slowly takes your mind even when the body is strong and willing.
I’ve witnessed family members battle Alzheimer’s and it’s painful to walk with them on that journey. My grandmother and father-in-law’s lives were claimed by the disease. As a family member, you go through the loss of your loved one over and over again when you have to remind them who you are, who your children are and where they, themselves are, in that moment in time. It’s an illness that doesn’t discriminate and sadly, one that has no current cure.
I grew up in a basketball coach’s household and my own mom had the honor of meeting Coach Summit in 1985 when she was asked to introduce her at the Mississippi High School Athletic Association coaching clinic. “She was so nice and so down to earth. Just sad she left us too early,” recalled Coach Georgia Walker.
Summit was a pioneer of the game and knew how to get the most out of her players, a loving mom, an impeccable leader to many assistants, paved the way for so many other female coaches, proved to be a nemesis to the likes of Geno Auriemma of UCONN in her years of coaching… and in her final time on earth, she was an advocate for the disease of Alzheimer’s through the Pat Summit Foundation.
Rest in peace Coach and prayers to your family. The sports world will never have another Pat Summit – a true legend, legacy and lady.