The sporting world lost a legend this week. Former University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summit died at 64:
She won eight NCAA titles and went 1,098-208 in 38 seasons as coach at Tennessee. She was one of the most accomplished and influential figures in the history of women’s sports, but also was universally respected and beloved.
If you’re like me, a couple of things from the above immediately caught your eye. One is that she coached for 38 years and the other is that she was only 64 years old. If you do some quick math there, you’ll realize that her head coaching career started when she was only 22 years old. If you do a little harder math, you’ll calculate that she averaged 28 wins per year over those 38 seasons while averaging just over five losses each year. And during the course of her career she won eight national championships.
But perhaps her biggest accomplishment was pushing along the advancement of women’s athletics. No, I don’t just mean women’s collegiate athletics, and not just in the United States. I mean women’s athletics worldwide. If you’re old enough to be alive in 1974 — Summitt’s first year as Tennessee’s head coach — think back to the state of women’s athletics. In my hometown, there were no girl’s leagues for any sport. Not basketball, not volleyball, not softball. Not anything (and especially not soccer). Young girls could be cheerleaders — if they were lucky — and maybe got to cheer at a few youth league football games in the fall. Every now and again, some super-athletic girl would try to play little league baseball, but that wouldn’t usually last for long.
And now think of the state of women’s athletics today. Girls are playing basketball at every level — even as professionals — all over the world. Leagues also abound for volleyball, softball, lacrosse and soccer all over the country. There were, of course, other women’s sports and other well-known female athletes prior to Summitt’s arrival at UT and there were other women who helped the advancement of women in sports (Billie Jean King is one woman who comes to mind), but we’d be hard-pressed to think of too many others who did as much to press all of women’s athletics forward.
I recently heard some talking heads on the radio try to rank her as the best coach of any sport in history. That’s not true. That’s just people paid to talk for a living getting caught up in the moment. There’s nothing on her resume to suggest that she’s anywhere near the top of that sort of list. And if you really wanted to get persnickety with her resume, you could point out that she came along and dominated when her sport in general wasn’t very competitive or very good. You could suggest that she built the critical mass of her program during this key time to a point where she had significant built-in competitive advantages against all of the other Sally-come-latelys. But getting into that sort of argument would really miss the point of Summitt’s career. She was a great coach — her record in her sport does point that out. There will be coaches that win more games and some that win more championships. But there most likely won’t be one that pushes athletics for an entire gender forward.