In the living room of my grandma and grandpa’s house in rural western North Carolina, I perched on a leather recliner in a room lit by the orange colors emanating from an old wooden-cased television screen. The only person awake in the house, I quietly stood to take in the moment as the University of Tennessee won its sixth NCAA championship in women’s basketball.
I was 13 years old when the Lady Vols finished that 1998 season 39-0. It’s the first time I remember hanging onto my seat for a women’s basketball game. A stern-faced woman on the sideline kept appearing on the screen. She would scowl at the referees, at her players and at the other players. You could tell she was tough to reason with, no matter who you were. But at the end of the game, her frown smoothly transformed into a smile. As she cut down the nets with her players, you could see the joy as she celebrated another historic stop on an amazing career that only grew more legendary from that moment.
The woman was Pat Summitt.
Summitt had a strong short list of reasons why she was the seemingly militaristic woman she was.
She was raised to work hard. My favorite story I’ve heard about her recounted a time when she was about the age I was when I first remember watching her coach. As the story goes, her farming father dropped her off in a hayfield, pointed to a tractor and told her he wanted the work to be done by the time he returned. Simple instructions. No excuses. Nothing but work expected. That story mirrors the relationship she had with and requirements she had for her players.
She was basketball. After learning to shoot in a barn loft, she became an Olympian herself and went on to win more basketball games as a college coach than John Wooden, Dean Smith or Mike Krzyzewski (although Coach K is still at it). She won eight national championships. She never coached a losing season. Her players include household names in women’s pro sports, including Candace Parker, Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings, Nikki McCray and Kara Lawson. Their names have reached their destinations thanks to Summitt.
She was Tennessee. I heard that she was flying home after coaching a game when she went into labor with her son in 1990, and that she wouldn’t let the plane land until it reached her home state. She wanted her boy to be born in Tennessee like she was. Summitt was as much Tennessee as Davy Crockett, Ernie Ford and country music.
As much as anyone, Summitt was women’s athletics. She drew legions of fans to watch women’s college basketball who wouldn’t have otherwise noticed.
She was a champion with powerful wits all the way until her passing earlier this week. You could sense her inner strength just by watching her or listening to her on TV, even as she entered an off-court battle with Alzheimer’s disease throughout the past five years. In my mind, the awareness she has garnered for the disease and its effects may be her greatest accomplishment, alongside the values of hard work and determination that she instilled in her players.
On the March 1998 night I watched Summitt win the national title, my grandma woke and heard her TV still powering through the late evening. She walked down the hall and emerged in the living room doorway. She asked if I was all right, shot me a stern glance and told me firmly: “Don’t stay up too late, you better get to bed soon.” It was one of the few times I remember my grandmother being that stern in delivering simple instructions during one of my visits to her house. It was like grandma had assumed the role of Pat Summitt for a few moments.
My grandma is now battling dementia, too, similarly to Coach Summitt. I’m thankful for that night in her house, watching Tennessee’s victory and celebration. While my grandma wouldn’t be able to remember that moment, and Summitt wouldn’t know me apart from any other casual Vols fan at the time, it’s one heck of a memory for me this week as we reflect on the work and life of the coach.
That old leather recliner now sits in the library in my and my wife’s home. As I sit there, watch sports and rise to the edge of my seat, I’ll think of Pat Summitt and how fond old memories can return and continue to coach us forward.