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What Hospitalists Can Learn from Basketball Coach Pat Summitt


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.

Pat Summitt receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a ceremony at the White House May 29, 2012 in Washington, D.C.Image Credit: Pat Summit

Pat Summitt receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a ceremony at the White House May 29, 2012 in Washington, D.C.Image Credit: Pat Summit

Early Career

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.

At the end of her career, there were 78 people mentored directly by her who were coaching basketball or working in administrative positions associated with the sport. Tennessee Athletic Director Dave Hart summarized her legacy:

“Pat Summitt is … truly is a global icon who transcended sports and spent her entire life making a difference in other peoples’ lives. … She was a genuine, humble leader who focused on helping people achieve more than they thought they were capable of accomplishing. … Her legacy will live on through the countless people she touched throughout her career.”2

Every player coached by Summitt finished her undergraduate degree, often with considerable prodding directly from her.

“Across the board with her kids, she also prepared them for life after basketball,” basketball coach Bob Knight said. “Not many people have prepared their players that well for life.”2

You don’t have to be a women’s basketball fan to understand and respect the impact that Summitt had on the lives she touched. She didn’t just win a lot of games—she changed the game. Think about how you will be remembered in your career as a hospitalist. Will you be remembered as someone clocking in and clocking out, just getting by for a paycheck? Or will you be remembered and revered as a “Summitt,” someone who always gave it their all and coached others to their best?

Hospital medicine is still in its relative infancy as a specialty. We all have the potential to pave a positive future for thousands more to come behind us; we all have the potential to be a Summitt. TH


1. Gregory S. Q&A: Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt. Time website. Accessed August 7, 2016.

2. Pat Summitt, winningest coach in Division I history, dies at 64. ESPN website. Accessed August 7, 2016.

Dr. Scheurer is a hospitalist and chief quality officer at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. She is physician editor of The Hospitalist. Email her at

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