I’ve often wondered what kind of results the University of Tennessee’s Pat Summitt would have produced had she coached men.  There are many who believe just the thought of college basketball’s all-time winning coach leading a men’s team devalues the women’s game.

Although I disagree with that sentiment, I do understand where it’s coming from.  While Pat Summitt’s unmatched coaching record should be able to stand on its own merit, in the real world of sports, and public perception, women’s accomplishments rarely if ever mean as much as men’s.

Pat Summitt

Still, no one can dismiss Summitt’s astounding record.  She won nearly 1100 games in her illustrious, 38-year tenure as a head coach, losing just over 200 and garnering eight national championships.  The simple fact is few coaches of either sex understand the game of basketball better than she does.

But for all that Pat Summitt has meant to the sport, I should not be writing about her retirement right now.  She is only 59 years old.  She should have at least another decade of winning games and titles.   But Summit is contending with one of life’s most cruel and misunderstood diseases, Alzheimer’s.

Last summer Pat Summitt revealed that she is suffering from the early onset of Alzheimer’s and would not be coaching much longer.   Despite the diagnosis, she coached the Lady Vols into yet another NCAA tournament this season, concluding with a spot in the Elite Eight – again.  But success aside, it was clear to most observers, including Summitt herself, that another year of coaching would have required a miracle that only the Lord could provide.  Which is why on Wednesday she announced her retirement.

Bit by bit Alzheimer’s erodes comprehension, memories and connections.  And it ultimately ends the lives of those it afflicts.  Because of that eventual reality, Summitt is leaving coaching while she still has time to enjoy the companionship of her loved ones and close friends.

Pat Summitt got into the coaching business at an early age.  She was selected as head coach at the University of Tennessee right after graduating from the University of Tennessee – Martin, in 1974.

Summitt carefully constructed the basketball program at Tennessee, one smartly placed board at a time, just as women’s sports were gaining needed prominence and respect.  Her fierce competitiveness and intelligence drove her and her players.  The resounding success created her legend and rewarded her handsomely.  Summitt would eventually earn more than most men’s coaches – a reported $1.5 million annually.

I never got the chance to meet or interview Pat Summitt.  My observations of her have come at a distance – watching her coach her players on television and what I’ve read and heard her say.  I’ve also formed an opinion based on the nearly unanimous and reverential praise of Summitt coming from just about the entire basketball community.

While her coaching career is being prematurely halted by a disease that still mystifies doctors and scientists, Pat Summitt can move on knowing she’s positively influenced the lives of her players, and changed the way millions of people now view women’s sports and their coaches.

While she is most often judged by her many wins and championships, one of the most significant accomplishments of her leadership is the fact that literally every Lady Vol who completed four years of eligibility playing for Pat Summitt earned a college degree.

When we rank the truly great coaches of all-time, male and female, Pat Summitt, as her famous last name implies, must be considered at or near the top.

 

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