Coach Pat Summitt: Feminist Hero and Working Mother

Coach Pat Summitt AlzheimersI had intended to write an entirely different blog post here at Home/Work today, but then the news broke; legendary University of Tennessee Women’s Basketball Coach Pat Head Summitt announced her retirement this afternoon. At only age 59, and still heading up one of the most successful college sports programs in American history, Coach Summitt shouldn’t be retiring. Instead, she should be looking ahead to the next big win.

But you see, this former Olympian who has coached her own teams to an unbelievable 1098 victories and 8 NCAA titles has a pretty good reason to step down at what should be the height of her amazing career; Pat Summitt is suffering from early onset dementia – a type of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Before I say more, I want to make clear that I know NOTHING about college sports..or professional sports…or any sports at all, really. Even though I graduated from the University of Tennessee, and have made my home in the college-sports obsessed town of Knoxville, Tennessee ever since graduation, I’ve never followed UT’s uber-popular football or basketball teams beyond casual interest, mostly based on the reality that here in Knoxville, the entire mood of the city depends in large part on whether the Vols won or lost the previous weekend’s game.

But honestly, the only time I have ever actually attended a University of Tennessee football game in person, I was wearing a sandwich board reading “U.S. Out of Nicaragua.” Not only does this (totally true) factoid seriously date me, it also tells you pretty much everything you need to know about my interest incollege or professional sports of any type. Frankly, I don’t even totally understand the rules of college basketball beyond being pretty sure that scoring baskets is good, while running down the court without simultaneously bouncing the ball is bad.

I tell you all of this so that when I go on to explain my own longstanding and deep admiration for University of Tennessee Women’s Basketball Coach Pat Head Summitt, you will understand that my high opinion of this remarkable woman is rooted not in some kind of team fandom – which can sometimes result in a sort of idolatry toward certain coaches that at least some of these individuals don’t actually merit – but instead, my brand of non-sports-fandom comes from two decades of observing how this amazing feminist hero has conducted her life and career.


As I noted, Knoxville, Tennessee – my hometown for the past 20-plus years, as well as the location of the University of Tennessee – is nationally recognized as being among the country’s most rabid sports towns. Thus, it’s always been the case around here that the male UT coaches who overseee the big UT sports programs like football, baseball and basketball are considered and treated as celebrities on par with Brad Pitt at Cannes. This is the generally the case no matter how well or how poorly these male coaches’ teams happen to be performing during any given season, or how poorly their questionable personal behavior or professional ethics end up reflecting on the University. These guys’ salaries are huge and their local influence is even bigger. Of course, I know that Knoxville is not alone in this regard ( I’m lookin’ at you, State College, Pennsylvania), but my adopted hometown definitely has as what I would describe conservatively an exceptionally enthusiastic respect for guys-who-coach.

Don’t misunderstand; I myself could definitely go all fangrrl over one of my own celeb crushes, just as any UT sports superfan would be excited to hang out with the head football coach, just because he’s the football coach. (In my own case, I’d certainly and rather absurdly fall over onto the floor in a dead faint if I realized that, say, Colin Firth or Peter Krause happened to be seated at the table next to me at the local Cracker Barrel. ) And I’m also not suggesting that all or even most of the male University of Tennessee coaches over the years have necessarily been unworthy of their automatic celebrity status. As a matter of fact, current UT Men’s Basketball Head Coach Cuonzo Martin strikes me as a particularly admirable fellow.

But the thing is that this automated hero worship has always pretty much been reserved exclusively for the MALE coaches in this sports-crazy city and state where I happen to live. For the men, the fan idolatry and celeb status don’t really have to be earned. They just sort of come with the job title, like a crown and sceptre that the public simply hands over to them on the day they sign the bagazillion dollar contract with the University.

However, with a very few very notable exceptions, the women coaches who head up even the most successful major college sports franchises in the country simply aren’t appreciated or recognized in the same celebritized, idolized way.

But yes, there are exceptions.

And University of Tennessee Women’s Basketball Coach Pat Head Summitt is THE exception; she’s a local, regional and national celebrity sports superstar who is equally beloved by devoted UT sports fans of both genders, her former players and assistant coaches, her rivals on the court, and yes, even by legions of non-sportsy admirers like me.

That’s because by any measure, and considered through any lens, this woman is something special, Coach Pat Head Summitt represents an exceptional, once-or-twice-in-a-generation example of the very best of what it means to be an American woman.


When the New York Times published a story last August about Coach Summitt’s boldly graceful public revelation that she’d recently been diagnosed with one of the cruelest of all human diseases, Mary Jo Kane, a sports sociologist at the University of Minnesota explained Pat Summitt’s impact on women’s athletics like this, “In modern history, there are two figures that belong on the Mount Rushmore of women’s sports — Billie Jean King and Pat Summitt. No one else is close to third.”

While I’ve already admitted that I know almost nothing about college or professional sports of any kind, even I am able to see that Pat Summitt’s almost unbelievable coaching record supports Ms. Kane’s claim. Since taking the then-lowly position of girls’ basketball coach at UT back in 1974, here are just a few of Coach Pat Head Summitt’s achievements:


  • She’s the all-time winningest coach in NCAA basketball history – including both men’s and women’s teams in all divisions.
  • She’s the only coach in NCAA history with 1,000 victories.
  • In April of 2000, she was named the Naismith Basketball Coach of the Century
  • In 2009, the Sporting News placed her at number 11 on its list of the “50 Greatest Coaches of All Time” The list included all sports, and Pat Summitt was the ONLY woman named to the lineup.
  • As of her retirement today, she’s now spent 38 straight years as a college coach without a single losing season.
  • During her career as Head Coach at the University of Tennessee, an astonishing 72% of her players on to become Olympians, All-Americans, USA National Team members, All-SEC performers, Academic All-Americans, etc.

There are many other equally mindblowing stats and numbers I could list to illustrate the truth of that New York Times quote, but remember, I’m no sports fan, so most of that scorekeeping data – impressive as I understand it to be – really doesn’t have any contextual meaning to me like it may to some of you who really do follow women’s basketball.

Yet, here I am, just as big a fan of Coach Pat Head Summitt as the most devoted and well informed Lady Vols superfan. Despite the fact that I’ve never actually attended a single UT Lady Vols basketball game, I still frequently and very comfortably describe Pat Summitt as one of the barrier-busting American feminists who most inspires me.

Why? Well, for starters, she is someone who obviously lives her life according to a code of self-discipline and ethics that never seems to falter, whether she knows cameras are watching or not. Seriously, when you are Pat Summitt, you are going to get caught and likely photographed if you so much as JAYWALK. If Coach Summit had ever done ANYTHING notably unethical or questionable in her decades as a public figure, people would whisper. There would be gossip and sportsfan message board trashtalk, and over time, there would have been erosion in the wide and deep reservoir of respect in which Coach Summitt is currently held.

But because she has so reliably comported herself publicly and privately in such an exemplary way, the only “gossip” anyone’s ever really had on her was that one time when Pat Summitt  ….wait for it….wait for it… KICKED A RABID RACCOON’S ASS.

Y’all think I am making that up, don’t you?

But I’m not.

Back in 2008, Coach Summitt dislocated her shoulder not while demonstrating proper layup technique to one of her players, but while battling an angry raccoon, using only her bare hands. She attacked the raccoon before it could attack her labrador retriever. That’s right, Coach Summit protected her large dog from a wild animal, rather than the other way around.

Just another routine day in PatSummittVille….

You gotta love that in a superstar.


And as for how she got to BE the superstar in her field that she is today, well, let’s just say she’s pretty much the Amelia Earheart, or the Susan B. Anthony of women’s athletics. Yes, her role really has been just that meaningful.

Born in 1952, Patricia Head grew up a farm kid in rural Tennessee, just like I did in a later decade. Suffice it to say that the idea of women athletes being taken seriously was not one heard often in 1960s, small town Tennessee. There were no facilities or coaches or camps or trainers for talented, hardworking little girls who dreamed of playing in the NBA one day. But Pat Head’s parents believed in her dream and her talent, even though those dreams were for a future career that didn’t actually even exist for women at that point. Her parents moved to another Tennessee town that at least offered a basketball team for the girls at the local high school, just so their daughter could play the sport she loved.

And play she did. Although Coach Summitt’s older brothers had earned basketball scholarships to pay their college tuitions, Title IX wasn’t passed until 1971, so when Miss Pat Head enrolled at the University of Tennessee-Martin, there were no scholarships for her.  After playing four years of college basketball at this small, public university – earning All American honors along the way – she went on to become co-captain of the 1976 U.S. Olympic basketball team, which brought home the silver that year. Oh, and did I mention the part where this was the very first Olympics to include women’s basketball at all? Or how only 8 years later, Pat Summitt returned to the Olympics to coach the 1984 U.S. Women’s Olympic Basketball team to a medal, making Coach Summitt the only athlete  to ever win Olympic medals as both competitor and coach.


But two years before her first trip to the Olympics, in 1974, 22 year old Pat Head was named the women’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee. In those early days, she coached, yes, but she also drove the team van, helped to wash uniforms (purchased via a fundraising donut sale), tutored her players when they needed academic help, and so on.

And then, her University of Tennessee players started winning. And winning. AND WINNING.  After graduating  – with no possibility yet of a professional playing career for even the very best female basketball players – these young athletes would leave UT, taking the “Pat Summitt Way”  with them as they launched their own start-up women’s coaching careers at other colleges and universities in state after state – meaning that the seeds planted by one woman’s groundbreaking and BACKbreaking work during the first 15 years after Title IX passed were not only changing women’s sports at the University of Tennessee, but were, in fact, quietly and fundamentally reshaping the face of women’s athletic departments all over the country. And the Pat Summitt ripple effect didn’t stop there, because better college sports programs for women meant better high school sports programs for girls…and so on…and so on…

Are you starting to see the pattern here? Pat Head Summitt never relied on opportunities to already be available before deciding to pursue them; instead she simply DID what she knew she was meant to do, along the way becoming arguably the most influential member of  the group of trailblazing women athletes in the 1970s and 80s who created the high quality athletic participation and career opportunities that now exist for every baby girl born in this country.

This is what feminism on the ground really looks like. It looks like Coach Pat Head Summitt.


I have no doubt that Coach Pat Summitt is proud, as she should be, of the amazing professional achievements I’ve already named. But I also have a feeling that her proudest accomplishment is no different than mine, or that of most of you like me. We may not be iconic feminist trailblazers, and we may never reach the pinnacle of our own chosen professions like Pat Summit – or even come close.

However, like me, and like many of you, Pat Head Summitt isn’t just a woman with ambitions and a career. She’s a MOTHER with ambitions and a career. And I’ll just betcha that the baby boy to whom she gave birth in 1990 (an event that took place in the same local hospital room in which I gave birth to my own baby boy less than a year later, or so the nurses and obstetrician I shared with Pat Summitt told me at the time) is, in fact, the life “accomplishment” that shines brightest for her.


Coach Summitt is rather famous for the steely-eyed “game face” she generally adopts when she’s on the sidelines coaching her team. I’ve seen photos of that look of fierce determination many times over the years. But I also had the opportunity on a few chilly, dewy early mornings about 15 years ago to see a different look on Coach Pat Summitt’s face as she walked the sidelines of a different kind of game. That was the year that a very young Tyler Summitt played in the same kindergarten-level, co-ed soccer league at a local park as my own little boy, Henry.

Although I was too shy to ever approach Coach Summitt and introduce myself, I will never forget those mornings when I would see the by-then already famous coach,  pacing back and forth just as she does on the basketball court during national championship games, proudly watching her little guy chase the ball around, yelling encouragement, and  smiling and laughing with sheer joy when Tyler managed to connect his small, cleated foot with the ball. And then after the games would end, there she was, loving on him like crazy along with all the other “regular” moms like me.

All these years later, I’ve still never actually met Coach Summitt or her son Tyler in person, even as my non-sports fan admiration for this amazing woman has grown year after year. My own firstborn son – the little boy who was born in the same hospital room where Coach Summitt also became a first time mom, and whom I also “coached” and loved on and cheered at those absurdly cute soccer games – is gone now;  my son Henry died 23 months ago, when he was only 18 years old.  But whatever else I manage to accomplish in my life – Henry, along with his little brother and three sisters will always be my proudest achievements, just as I am sure Coach Pat Summitt’s son Tyler is hers.

Tyler Summitt now plays on the UT Men’s basketball team, continuing the family tradition, and the whole Knoxville and University of Tennessee community – myself very much included – have been so touched and impressed as we’ve seen young Tyler stand with and support his famous mama since she went public with her devastating diagnosis last year.  That says a lot about a kid – the way he takes care of his mom like that.

And it also says a lot about a college student who just happens to be sports royalty, but who would still take the time right after a UT basketball game at Thompson-Boling Arena just a few months ago to chat up a starry eyed middle schooler who had lucked into the opportunity to visit the team locker room after the last buzzer. Tyler Summitt graciously asked the young basketball fan lots of questions, and then he really listened to his answers.  And then, Pat Summitt’s son TOTALLY sealed the deal by remarking to the much smaller boy that judging by the huge size of the middle schooler’s feet, Tyler just knew that the boy was going to sprout up in height any minute now, meaning he’d surely get to play in Thompson-Boling Arena himself one day.

That’s a fine young man to be humble and kind enough to make a much younger kid’s night at a college ball game special like that.

And you know that young basketball fan with the big feet and equally big hopes of one day playing college ball himself? The 8th grader who left Thompson Boling Arena one night back in February of this year with stars in his eyes after Tyler Summitt took the time to encourage his dreams?  Well, as it happens,  that particular young basketball fan was my surviving son, the little brother of my eldest son Henry, the child gone too soon, but who once upon a time played in those soccer games at the park where two very different mothers joyfully paced the sidelines, neither of us aware of  what  the years ahead were to bring.

Despite career pressures and demands that most of us working moms can’t even imagine, Coach Pat Summitt clearly made the time somewhere in between winning more games than any other college basketball coach in American history to do one hell of a good job mothering her son into young adulthood.


God bless Coach Pat Head Summitt as today, she walks away from her passion to take on an uncertain and challenging opponent. Whatever the next chapter holds for this powerful mother and human being,  I have no doubt she will tackle it with the same graceful strength that she used to pry open a new world of opportunity for every single girl in America who will ever come along behind her.

I may not know much about basketball, or even sports in general, but I do know greatness when I see it.

And I see it in Coach Pat Head Summitt.





Article Posted 5 years Ago

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