On October 20, WNBA star Candace Parker’s LA Sparks beat the Minnesota Lynx to take the title. In a short and bittersweet interview with ESPN on the boards immediately after the game, Parker, with tears in her eyes, said “This is for Pat.” Pat Summitt was Parker’s college coach at Tennessee and a giant in women’s sports. She passed away in June of 2016. As our own SIUE Women’s Basketball team starts its season (you can find the schedule here and support our Cougars by attending games), Professor Sharon McGee of SIUE’s English Department brings us this reflection on Pat Summitt’s life and significance.
–Alison Reiheld, Director of Women’s Studies at SIUE
I didn’t know Pat Head Summitt (I still refer to her with three names) personally, but I knew her in the way that anyone who has attended the University of Tennessee knows her, as anyone who has ever lived in Tennessee knows her, as anyone who cares about women’s issues knows her. What she did in a lifetime was incredible—not just the eight national championships or the winningest record of college Division 1 coaches (male or female), the Olympic medals–but what she did to make women’s sports, and not just basketball but especially basketball–as competitive, important, and significant as men’s. Under her leadership, UT women’s basketball had a 100% graduation rate for student athletes. 161 student-athletes who completed their eligibility graduated—an astonishing feat in Division I sports.
Summitt died Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at the age of 64. She was diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type in 2011. Regardless of whether or not one values college athletics, women owe a debt of gratitude to Summitt.
At University of Tennessee-Martin, Pat Head played college basketball without a scholarship, although her three older brothers had all received athletic scholarships. In a pre-Title IX world, women’s sports were just for fun. When she began as head coach at UT, she made $250 month, washed the team uniforms, and drove the van to games herself. Because of her drive, devotion, and commitment to women’s sports, the NCAA finally held a women’s basketball tournament in 1982, a decade after Title IX began, eight years after Summitt took the helm of the Lady Vols as a 22-year-old head coach, and 40 years after holding its first men’s tournament.
Washington Post sports writer Sally Jenkins, a close friend of Summitt’s, noted that she has never been able to find the right word to describe Summitt. As Jenkins writes, Pat “agreed that the best word to describe her was ‘subversive.’”
During the days after her death, former players of Summitt’s have talked about her drive, competitiveness, vision, and doggedness. But they also are unanimously quick to note that Coach Summitt was more than a basketball coach, she was a loyal mentor and friend who wanted her players to succeed not just in sports but as fully realized women.
As a young woman growing up in Tennessee and as an undergraduate student at the University of Tennessee during the Lady Vols’ rise to the top, I admired Coach Pat Head Summitt. Personally, I had always hoped she’d become the first female coach of an NBA team. To me, breaking through that glass ceiling into the male-dominated world of the NBA would truly mean women had arrived.
I recently read that at one point Summitt had been offered the head coaching position of the UT men’s basketball program, which would have also been a big coup—the first woman coach of a male Division I team. Upon receiving the offer, Summitt replied, “Why would that be a step up?”
And with that statement, Summitt made it all clear: Why should success be defined by coaching a men’s team? Why would we as women—as a society—want to define a woman’s “arrival” by her ascendency into a male world? Summitt was, in fact, subverting the system, defining success as being the coach of a great basketball team, either men’s or women’s. Being one of the best coaches in the history of college basketball is enough. Being the coach of a women’s basketball team was essential to her.
Without Coach Summitt’s steadfast commitment to women’s sports and lives, I cannot imagine that the opportunities for women student-athletes would be what they are today. How many women have attended college and had a world of opportunities opened to them because of the ascendency of women’s college sports—due in large part to Summitt.
Women athletes of any sport as well as all women owe a debt of gratitude to Summitt for forging new paths that all of us can follow.
Rest in Peace, Pat Head Summitt. You made the world a better place for women, for all of us.