The intensity that defined Pat Summitt often skirted the line between sarcasm and sincerity. In March 2011 I was a senior at the University of Tennessee and sports editor of the Daily Beacon who had been dispatched to cover the Lady Vols in the Dayton Regional of the NCAA tournament. There I watched top-seeded Tennessee fall to No. 2 Notre Dame in the Elite Eight, 73-59, which halted the Lady Vols’ shot at reaching another Final Four.
As the clock approached midnight, the media room in the bowels of UD Arena began to fill. Soon Summitt emerged from a dark curtain and climbed to the podium to deliver her postgame remarks. She was disappointed, she said, that her Lady Vols had been outmatched against the Irish, who had been 0-20 against Tennessee prior to the matchup. But Tennessee’s stellar season, which had featured only three losses, would ultimately fall short of a national championship.
Eventually a reporter posed a question to Summitt: When did she plan to throw Tennessee back on the practice floor? How much rest would the Lady Vols get? Summitt cracked a sly smile and glanced across the room at Joan Cronan, then the women’s athletic director at Tennessee. “If Ms. Cronan would let me,” Summitt said, “we’d be out there tonight.”
The gathered media chuckled. Is she serious? We wondered. With Summitt, you never knew. But those most familiar with Summitt, who amassed 1,098 wins and eight national titles in 38 seasons in Knoxville, wouldn’t put it past her to stage a late-night practice on an opponent’s floor. After all, who would dare try to stop her? For nearly four decades Summitt demanded an unrelenting standard at Tennessee, one few college athletes could meet. It’s no surprise only the best of the best ever earned the chance to play for Pat.
I grew up in Knoxville and never knew a time when Summitt wasn’t dominant. She won her first national championship in 1987, the year before I was born. As a kid I ventured to Vols and Lady Vol games alike, and it never seemed odd that the Lady Vols regularly outdrew their male counterparts in attendance. By the time Tennessee won the national championship in football in 1998 -- which launched Knoxville into relative euphoria -- Summitt had already put a bow on a three-peat of titles earlier that year. But Big Orange fans had long grown accustomed to Summitt’s excessively successful Lady Vols, the undisputed pinnacle of women’s basketball.
Despite the winning – and there was plenty of it – Summitt maintained an integrity largely absent from major college athletics. She managed to run circles around other women’s programs by doing things the right way. Every Lady Vol that completed her eligibility left Knoxville with a degree. During the 2009-10 season a key player in Summitt’s rotation, center Kelly Cain, asked the coach if she could skip a road game at Alabama so she wouldn’t miss class. Summitt obliged (and the Lady Vols still beat the Crimson Tide).
Another time, the coach suspended star forward Candace Parker for the first half of a road game at DePaul – all for missing curfew. Curfew. It didn’t seem to matter that the contest marked a homecoming of sorts for Parker, an Illinois native. From bench player to All-American, those who wore the orange and white had a standard to meet, lest incur the wrath of Summitt’s steely gaze.
But perhaps Summitt’s most enviable quality was her ability to remain approachable. She was a larger-than-life figure who felt like one of us, a neighbor chock-full of sound advice and down-home charm. Immense success did nothing to alter a personality born and bred on the farms of Middle Tennessee. And as Summitt went on to raise the profile of women’s athletic everywhere, she treated each and ever person like they mattered. But for so many across the country, it was Summitt who truly mattered, evolving into a figure we won’t ever forget.
Staff writer, Sports Illustrated