I’m not exactly a devout follower of women’s college basketball. But having grown up in Knoxville, it was hard not to follow the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers (“Lady Vols”) and the career of their longtime head coach, Pat Summitt. Summitt recently died from a swift and severe form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. In the wake of her death, many have analyzed the impact of her career and the legacy she has left from her lifetime of relentless coaching and developing of athletes. She was an incredible leader who should make us all reflect on the impact we are making in the lives of our patients and their families, our peers, and the next generation of hospitalists.
Explore this issue:September 2016
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Pat Summitt was born Patricia Sue Head in 1952 in Clarksville, Tenn., the daughter of Richard and Hazel Albright Head and the fourth of five children. When she was in high school, her family moved to another town so she could play basketball (as her local town did not have a girl’s team). Summitt attended the University of Tennessee at the Martin campus and played for its first women’s basketball coach. Although each of Summitt’s three brothers had received an athletic scholarship, at the time there were no athletic scholarships for women, so her parents supported her way through college.1
After college, Summitt started as a graduate assistant at the University of Tennessee. At the start of the 1974 basketball season, the head coach suddenly quit, and she was named the new head coach at the age of 22. (This was before women’s college basketball was even an NCAA-sanctioned sport.) Legend has it she was paid $250 a month and the team had almost no budget. She reportedly washed all the uniforms herself (which were purchased the year before from the proceeds of a doughnut sale) and drove the team van.1
Barely older than most of the players on the team, she coached her first game in December against Mercer University and lost 84–83. From then on, she racked up an incredible number of wins. In her second season, Summitt coached the team to a 16–11 record while working on her master’s degree in physical education.1
By 1978, Summitt recorded her 100th win and coached the Lady Vols in their first Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women Final Four. She ended the decade by winning their first-ever Southeastern Conference tournament. A few years later, in 1984, she coached the U.S. women’s team to an Olympic gold medal, becoming the first U.S. Olympian to win a basketball medal and coach a medal-winning team. There were countless other career milestones: She coached the Lady Vols in 16 SEC regular-season championships and 16 SEC tournament titles. She also coached the Lady Vols in 18 NCAA Final Fours.
Summitt’s career-win total still stands as the most among NCAA Division I basketball coaches (men or women). Overall, Summitt finished her career with a record of 1,098-208 and a .841 winning percentage.