By Kevin Woo
I didn’t know Pat Summitt, but I’ve thought a lot about her the past few weeks. I remember her stalking the sidelines at the University of Tennessee on the basketball court that bears her name. I remember her array of orange suits. I remember the stare that she gave to players when she wanted to get their attention.
It’s ironic that I, along with thousands of people throughout the country, have spent time remembering and reminiscing about Summitt’s career because it was Alzheimer’s disease that took her life.
Summitt, died on June 28, 2016. She was 64. Summitt was the head basketball coach at the University of Tennessee for nearly 40 years and led the Lady Vols to more wins – 1,098 – than any other coach (man or woman) in the history of college basketball. In her nearly four decades as head coach, her teams won eight national titles.
She began her coaching career in 1972 after the passage of Title IX. Her first contract paid her less than $250 a month, and along with that princely sum she had to wash the teams’ uniforms. The uniforms, by the way, were purchased from the proceeds of a donut sale.
Over the next four decades, she became the face of women’s college basketball. Her success on and off the court proved that women could compete on the same level as men. She won 15 coach of the year honors, was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, and was named the Naismith Coach of the Century.
Those statistics and awards reflect Pat Summitt, the coach. But she was so much more. She was a daughter, a sibling, a spouse, a mom and a mentor.
She was diagnosed with early onset dementia in May 2011. True to form, as she announced that she’d be leaving the basketball program she said, “There’s not going to be any pity party and I’ll make sure of that.” She didn’t want people to feel sorry for her. Someone asked how she would handle life with Alzheimer’s. She repeated what she had told her players – left foot, right foot, breathe, repeat.
I discovered something as I was reading about Coach Summitt. Every player who ever played for her, all 161, graduated. Think about that. Every single woman who played basketball at the University of Tennessee under Pat Summitt earned her degree. Summitt believed that education was even more important than athletics. At a time when you read about infractions with this college program or that college program, Pat Summitt ran a clean program, and made sure that everyone went to class and graduated.
I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for her to live the last five years with Alzheimer’s. Today when I watch the Lady Vols play, I still see her stalking the sidelines, giving that famous stare. How does someone with such energy, vitality, and drive die so young? How does someone who had to keep so much information in her head during a game take the news that she has Alzheimer’s?
Before she died Summit founded the Pat Summitt Cure for Alzheimer’s Foundation. For information on Alzheimer’s disease, Coach Summitt and how you can make a difference, you can visit the Pat Summitt Foundation at http://www.patsummitt.org/.
If you or a family member are struggling with the disease, and life seems overwhelming, remember what Coach Summitt taught, “left foot, right foot, breathe, repeat.”