Pat Summitt was the greatest college basketball coach of all time.
Sports history continues to resist bestowing such unqualified honorifics upon women, but considering the audacity of her career, it’s difficult to reach any other conclusion. She won more than any of the men—more than Adolph Rupp, more than John Wooden, more than Coach K. It is unseemly to compare her to Geno Auriemma, her longtime rival in women’s college basketball, given that he benefits from her trailblazing genius. But it’s not the winning that distinguishes her, though she did that with more regularity and distinction than any other coach, male or female, in the history of college athletics. It was her character and her quiet commitment to her players’ well-being, both on and off the court.
Pat Summitt, who died on Tuesday, practically invented women’s college basketball, which is to say she forced the rest of us to pay attention to it—and to her and her team—year after year. Her career trajectory seems impossible. She took her only coaching job at the University of Tennessee in 1974 at the age of 22. Two years later, in 1976 she captained the USA’s Women’s Basketball team at the Olympics, helping the team win a silver medal. Eight years after that, she coached the Women’s team to gold. Without Pat Summitt establishing Tennessee, of all places, as the pinnacle of women’s college basketball, there would have been no investment in the sport at flagship universities like UConn, Notre Dame, Rutgers and Stanford. ESPN would not have committed millions to broadcast the women’s game. There would certainly be no WNBA. Pat Summitt breathed life into women’s college basketball.
But she did so much more.
Team sports like basketball are partnerships between a coach and her players, and the players Summitt guided testify to her magnanimity and her rebellious spirit. Imagine trying to build a dynasty in women’s sports the 1980s in Knoxville, Tennessee. How would you go about it? Summitt built her iconic program in part by convincing Black families from Chicago and New York and Atlanta to entrust their children to her, to send their daughters, who could go to any school in the country for free, to the rural South. She would then turn around and do the same with young white girls from hardscrabble hamlets like Sparta, Tennessee, inviting them to come and compete alongside these big city girls. It couldn’t have been easy, but she did it, and she rewarded that trust, guiding every player who attended Tennessee for four years to their degree.
This meant that when sports fans paused once or twice a year to notice women’s college basketball, they would invariably be confronted with Summitt’s scowling visage on the sideline and a seemingly unending parade of athletic and graceful Black women on the court. If you wanted to root for the Lady Vols, that meant rooting for women with first names like Niya and LaShonda and Semeka. Please believe that there were many racist and sexist people in Tennessee and across the nation that did not care to celebrate these athletic Black women, but Pat Summitt forced them to pay attention to her players, to recognize their greatness and hers.
But this is not simply a matter of a person with an eye for talent assembling the best talent, Summitt truly developed her players. Even her best players benefitted from her guidance.
Take Chamique Holdsclaw, the lynchpin of the greatest team in the history of women’s college basketball, the 1997-98 team that finished 39-0 and won three consecutive national championships. Holdsclaw was so prolific that she was later named the best female basketball player of the 20th century, and there was serious debate as to whether she might become the first woman to play in the NBA. When Holdsclaw’s professional career fizzled due to incapacitating bouts with depression that derived from bipolar disorder, Summitt was instrumental in getting her back on her feet. More importantly, tucked into many of the write-ups about Holdsclaw’s fall from grace was a version of this sentence: Pat Summitt and counselors at Tennessee helped Holdsclaw manage her mental health while she was there. So, Summitt worked with mental health professionals to enable Holdsclaw to become her best self. Would that we all had supervisors that were so diligent and comprehensive.
Holdsclaw also consistently reports that she came out when she was 20 or 21, which is to say during her junior year at Tennessee. So, Summitt, confronted with a queer and mentally unstable black athlete, marshalled her considerable resources to make sure she was healthy. Imagine what your typical football coach might have done in this situation.
And Holdsclaw wasn’t the first nor was she the last ‘challenging’ woman to flourish under Summitt. We must never forget that for more than 30 years Summitt created a safe and nurturing space for queer women, and Black women and white women, to develop into healthy and mature adults. Other coaches used this against Summitt, of course. They noted her short hair and all those rugged athletes and would warn parents away from her program. She never seemed to care. “I am who I am” she was reported to have said in response to the criticism. “I will not compromise.”
She never did. And thank goodness for that.
Jonathan W. Gray is an Associate Professor of English at John Jay College—CUNY. He is the author of Civil Rights in the White Literary Imagination, co-editor of Disability in Comic Books and Graphic Novels, and editor of The Journal of Comics and Culture. He’s at work on Illustrating the Race for Columbia University Press, which traces race in comics from 1966 to the present. Follow him on Twitter @elmcitytree.