Pat Summitt is finally at rest, buried last night in a private ceremony in her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee, 226 miles from Knoxville, where she worked magic, disguised as tireless effort. The complications from Alzheimer’s that claimed her life were particularly cruel for the winningest head coach in basketball history.
A disease for which there is no cure mercilessly toyed with a woman who, like all successful head coaches, dominated any and every situation she could control. There was no controlling this one.
Pat Summitt didn’t invent women’s college basketball, but every player and coach who knows any kind of success is standing on her Big Orange shoulders.
Ask yourself: Who is the one person responsible for the growth and popularity of the men’s sport? John Wooden? Fair choice, but his teams dominated well before the college game knew the madness that comes in March, and beyond.
College football? The Alabama bookends, Bear Bryant and Nick Saban, certainly stood and loom over all others, in the fertile pigskin soil of Tuscaloosa. But America adored the college game before the Bear was a cub.
The NFL? Maybe Pete Rozelle, the commissioner with the golden gut. But he impacted in the boardroom, not in the huddle.
Don’t even ask about baseball – too many names, too many teams. And we just bid farewell to the greatest boxer of them all, Muhammed Ali, but the fight game was large before he began floating and stinging.
In her sport, Summitt stands alone and in the mind’s eye, she is chin-to-chin with a player, fiery eyes piercing with an intensity that burned more than a thousand victories onto her resume’, which includes eight national championships and another figure equally impressive: Every player who finished her eligibility at Tennessee under Summitt went on to graduate.
After she died, social media came to life, as it always does when someone famous passes, with messages and remembrances, including photos of Summitt, posing with whomever she encountered at a luncheon, a clinic, the meat counter at Kroger. In them all she is alert, smiling and attentive, as though she truly appreciated being recognized and requested.
“She was there for people,” said UK women’s coach Matthew Mitchell, who spent a season as a graduate assistant at Tennessee and considered Summitt a mentor. “It was incredible to watch her interact with people and it was so inspiring. It takes a lot of energy to be a trailblazer and that’s what she was. She knew that how she acted, impacted the entire sport and she carried that with tremendous grace and the commitment to helping women’s basketball be successful.”
I had just one encounter with her but of course, for me it was memorable – simply because it was not what I expected, and maybe dreaded.
During a Southeastern Conference women’s basketball tournament I needed a pre-game interview with her for our SEC network radio broadcast, which I was producing. Ordinarily, veteran play-by-play man Dave Neal did our interviews but he was on the air when Summitt was available. So I grabbed the recorder and met up with her at the pre-arranged time.
Who would I be talking to? I wondered. Bob Knight? Bill Belichick? Vince Lombardi? Would it be someone who growled their way through the interview, convinced that no amount of knowledge she imparted would ever be enough to educate the dolt holding the microphone?
None of the above. She was, as we say in the south, “just folks.”
After I mumbled something about my subbing for Dave, she made a wisecrack about him, which allowed me to unclench my shoulders. Then we set about talking basketball for two minutes and 30 seconds.
When we were done, I wished we could keep talking, right up until tipoff. I was so comfortable, thanks to someone who understood the value of marketing, public relations, the media and just plain being decent to people – as long as she wasn’t standing on the sideline when a ballgame was on the line.
“I don’t know if there will be another one like her,” Mitchell said. “But I think our job now, the people who were impacted by her, is to pass along the lessons she taught us all.”
There was nobody around to snap a picture after our interview session. That’s okay. I’m not much of a picture-posing guy, although it’s been known to happen. Now, I wish I had been, on that day. I was in the presence of greatness, a giant. And she would be gone all too quickly.