I’m a hoops junkie. March is my birthday-Christmas-any celebration you want to name with an extended dance version track. I live stream games on the phone, stay up until all hours of the night watching Cinderella’s try to win a game and seeing how making the tourney for some schools is just as (if not as exciting) as reaching the Final Four for major powerhouses.
Last season, Gary Blair led Texas A&M to the Aggies first national title. It really was a joyous event for WCBB junkies. Blair served as an assistant in the vaulted program at Louisiana Tech for many years before becoming the head coach at Arkansas and then Texas A&M. It was a great ending to a sport that has been dominated by 2-3 programs for a long time. And to see Blair, who opted to remain coaching “girls sports” in Texas reach the pinnacle of his profession carried over into the off season.
And then the unthinkable happened. Pat Summit announced she had early onset dementia/Alzheimer type. Pat Summit: one of the iconic figures of women’s athletics. Hell, she rehabbed from a torn ACL when that was a career ending injury while coaching the new University of Tennessee Lady Volunteer basketball program. Over the years she has an obscene winning record, a 100% graduation rate for those who have stayed 4 years (and next semester she will sport 3 graduate students on her roster, Lady Vols just don’t graduate, they graduate early), every class has been to the Final Four since the NCAA started sponsoring a tournament, and all but 3 classes have won a national title. Mind boggling. Yes, UNC Soccer, Penn State Volley Ball and UConn have had longer winning streaks and more national titles.
But Pat is more than that: she built a program in the infancy of Title IX to a consistent national power. In the heart of football country, in a state where basketball is rarely on the radar screen, she convinced people to become fans of the game: not just her program. This past weekend, I was at Madison Square Garden for the Maggie Dixon Classic. I sat next to a group of people from Vermont who came specifically to see the UT Lady Vols. I asked if they had ties to UT: they’d never been to Knoxville but are fans of Summit and what she has done to raise the visibility of women’s athletics. As I waited for my train back to Boston, there was a noticeable amount of UT orange in the waiting room. We all started re-hashing the game: I was the only one who had ever been to Thompson-Boiling arena to see a game. When I mentioned my parents had season tickets, it was like I said I had seats a Lambeau field. There were UConn fans who felt the need to go and cheer for Pat despite the unfortunate ending that series had, people who simply knew how much she did along with a handful of others to make Title IX work.
One of the issues I’ve had with the LV program over the years is the public criticism of the players. I prefer Geno’s closed practices, limiting his players from public scrutiny (and truth be told, I like his sense of humor a bit better, even though I’ll always root for the Lady Vols first!) as much as possible. Both pushed each other into making better programs. Both coaches, along with Leon Barrymore, C. Vivian Stringer, Tara Vanderveer and Jim Foster built programs when graduation meant the end playing the sport.
So I stood there on Sunday, watching Pat Summit, receive one of the dozens of accolades she will probably pick up this year about speaking up. I’m a sap: I had tears in my eyes. When Kim Mulkey and Brittney Griner took time to give her a hug, in the middle of the basketball game, when Sue Wicks
reminded everybody present that Pat Summit was one of the reasons so many women, both athletes and non-athletes can reach the pinnacle of a given profession, I realized how lucky I’ve been to watch the Lady Vols for over 20 years, every season, in and out. I still think Geno’s way funnier. But Pat? I think she put the first crack in Hillary’s glass ceiling.
Last night as the Lady Vols played their annual game against Rutgers, I received a text from my mom saying the standing ovation for Pat was well over a minute. At the RAC. When I saw my twitter feed light up with comments from the ESPN announcers and other individuals present about the standing ovation, when I heard about the Rutgers team selling bracelets for the Pat Summit foundation, after the Baylor team wore purple to raise Alzheimer’s awareness and Carson-Newman wore the We Back Pat shirts during an exhibition game, I thought about how one person could make an impact. In 1974, women’s athletics was an afterthought in the college sport scene: now the Final Four, Frozen Four and championships in soccer and volleyball routinely sell out. How women’s athletics is not an afterthought: how rivalries exist and how Title IX needed just as many coaches who knew young women could be as competitive as young men.
And I thought about Pat: who has really been there since the start, who has seen the evolution of women in athletics. And I bawled: because after a life time of shaping and molding a generation of players, coaches and young women, she deserved to retire when she wanted to and enjoy the fruits of her labors. And that how even if you have everything money can buy, sometimes, that’s just not enough.
It’s only a few months into the season, already the sport is mourning the loss of 2 coaches in a plane crash, too many ACLs to count and realizing that one of the leaders of women’s athletics is facing the battle of her life. But the lining is that this is all news: 40 years ago, it probably wouldn’t have even made a mention in the local paper.