I know a little bit about what she’s capable of. She’s been the head coach of the University of Tennessee’s Lady Vols since 1974. During this time, her coaching skills have brought UT 1,037 victories; her teams have only been defeated 196 times. She’s led the Lady Vols to the Final Four 18 times—more times than any other men’s or women’s college basketball coach—brought home championship wins from 8. She coached the U.S. women’s basketball team to a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics…one notch better than the silver medal she won as a member of the team during the 1976 Olympics. Many of her girls have gone on to walk in her footsteps as coaches in their own right. Some have carried her lessons inside them through their own trips to Olympic victories. Some continue to wield the skills she helped them hone, onto WNBA courts across the country. More importantly? Every one of the eligible athletes who played for her went on to graduate with a degree. She’s made certain of that.
And these are just the “big” stats. There’s lots more to her beyond what I carry around in my weird noggin.
You know me, denizens. I’m not much for sports or stats. But Pat Summitt has always amazed, inspired, and humbled me. She is a remarkable role model and, pardon my feminist streak for a moment, if she was a man in charge of a men’s college or NBA team, with the same set of stats that I just quoted, her name would be synonymous with the game itself, on the lips of every basketball fan from the Bay of Fundy to the Gulf of California.
Regardless of this lack of deserved ubiquity, the facts cannot be disputed. Summitt holds the record for the most wins of any college basketball coach, man or woman. She’s brought home more NCAA championships than any other women’s basketball coach. She was part of the inaugural inductees to the women’s basketball hall of fame, she’s in the basketball hall of fame, she’s received the ESPY award for coach of the year, she’s got roads, gyms, and courts named after her…
…and now she’s announced that she has the early stages of Alzheimer’s. She’s 59 years old.
My heart hasn’t stopped breaking ever since I first heard this news.
I know what this disease is capable of. I know how cruel, how unrelenting, how unmerciful it is. How it can rob the grace and intelligence of even the strongest wills. I’ve also already had my heart broken once before, with NC State’s Coach Jimmy V. I hate to link Valvano and Summitt, since I think that Summitt has many, many more years ahead of her…perhaps even enough time that doctors will finally find the key to stopping or slowing this disease. I only mention Valvano here because of one of his most memorable quotes: “Don’t give up…don’t ever give up!”
I hope Coach Summitt fights this with every ounce of the resolve that she carries in ample supply. I hope she never gives up. And I hope that every girl who has donned the orange of the Lady Vols, who has been pushed to their limits and beyond, who has been brought to tears and finally to triumph, and who has left the University of Tennessee that much more remarkable as an athlete and as a woman never forgets that it was Summitt’s fire that helped to forge them.