Sports

A legacy the tides of time can’t erase

In this Jan. 31, 2016, file photo, former Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, center, attends an NCAA college basketball game between Tennessee and Alabama in Knoxville, Tenn. Summitt, the winningest coach in Division I college basketball history who uplifted the women's game from obscurity to national prominence during her career at Tennessee, died Tuesday morning. She was 64.
In this Jan. 31, 2016, file photo, former Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, center, attends an NCAA college basketball game between Tennessee and Alabama in Knoxville, Tenn. Summitt, the winningest coach in Division I college basketball history who uplifted the women's game from obscurity to national prominence during her career at Tennessee, died Tuesday morning. She was 64. AP

The end came early Tuesday morning for Pat Summitt. The thoughts and prayers were flooding in before the inevitable announcement.

Even Steve Spurrier, who made a career out of gigging Tennessee coaches, knew this particular coach was something different.

“One of the best coaches of all time – a great friend! Our prayers go out to coach and her family,” he tweeted.

On the off chance you didn’t know, Pat really was a “her.”

Most Americans from President Obama on down are aware that. They learned Sunday that Summitt’s early-onset Alzheimer’s had progressed to a critical stage. The fact they are now mourning a women’s basketball coach shows how much society has changed.

Summitt wasn’t personally responsible for the rise of women’s sports, but she was one of the pioneers who took a sledgehammer to the stereotypes.

She showed up at Tennessee in 1974 as a grad assistant. Two weeks later, the head coach unexpectedly took a sabbatical and they handed the job and an $8,900 salary to Summitt.

She was 22 and had never run a practice, but who really cared? Back then women didn’t get scholarships and many weren’t even allowed to run all 94 feet of the court.

A lot of high schools were still playing six-on-six. Three players were designated for defense and three on offense. They weren’t allowed to cross midcourt.

Girls were too delicate to handle too much activity, you know.

That never set well with the girl raised on a farm outside of Henrietta, Tenn. Summitt milked cows, bailed hay, cut tobacco and never lost her farm values.

Her father told her, “Cows don’t take a day off.” She inherited her dad’s work ethic and passed it along to those she coached.

Summitt’s players were expected to sit in the front row of every class. That helps explain why all every player Summitt coached who completed her eligibility graduated – all 161 of them.

On the court, Summitt backed down from nobody. When her team went into overtime at LSU one year, men’s coach Dale Brown wanted the ladies to play the extra period in an auxiliary gym so the men could start on time.

Summitt gave Brown her famous spine-melting glare. Her ladies weren’t going anywhere.

Her basketball crusade slowly paid off. The Lady Vols won eight NCAA titles as well as 1,094 games and watching women’s hoops became the cool social activity in Knoxville.

Summitt would still be coaching, but six years ago she slowly started forgetting things. She went to the Mayo Clinic and refused to believe the diagnosis.

Alzheimer’s? She was only 59.

The doctors laid out her inevitable decline.

“You don’t know me,” Summitt told them. “You don’t know what I’m capable of.”

Even Summitt, whom John Wooden called the best coach in the sport, couldn’t beat Alzheimer’s. But going quietly into the sunset like most victims would have meant Alzheimer’s beat her.

Summitt would not have that. After resigning in 2012, she started a foundation to raise money and awareness of the disease.

She wrote a memoir, “Sum It Up,” in which she described life with Alzheimer’s as having footprints on a beach “washed away by the surf.”

“The great stigma of it was in thinking it robbed us of all dignity and value,” she wrote. “Sometimes, I thought we strip people of their capacities faster than the disease itself does.”

President Obama praised Summitt’s candor when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom on May 29, 2012. Among the other recipients were Bob Dylan, John Glenn and William Foege, the doctor who led the campaign to eradicate smallpox.

She’d come a long way from driving the Lady Vols’ team van and sleeping in the opponent’s gym the night before a game. In a real sense, Summitt took women’s sports along for the ride.

That’s an achievement no surf will ever be able to wash away.

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