KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tears flowed through Pat Summitt Plaza Tuesday afternoon, when hundreds of fans and followers assembled to mourn the passing of Tennessee’s all-time greatest coach at the statue of her likeness.
Summitt, a victor of 1,098 games and eight national titles, was a champion of people — and those people came to the UT Knoxville campus determined to pay their respects.
Some came with letters. Others brought flowers, poems or signs. All paid tribute to Summitt, who died Tuesday morning at the age of 64.
Summitt’s leadership extended beyond the court and into the global athletic community. The women’s basketball game was merely a detail of her greatness.
Summitt’s record over the span of her 38 years as the Lady Vols head coach amounted to more victories than any other Division I coach at the time of her retirement four years ago. She stayed in the game as long as physically possible. The Tennessee icon announced her early onset Alzheimers diagnosis in August of 2011, eight months prior to her final NCAA tourney run ending with an Elite Eight finish.
Summitt couldn’t win them all on the basketball court — it only seemed like it — but she could and did go undefeated in the classroom. Every Lady Vol basketball player who spent four years in Summitt’s vaunted program graduated with a degree.
That is perhaps the most amazing distinction Summitt leaves behind. It’s a feat that will likely never be matched by any major, long-tenured basketball coach.
As much as her many accomplishments, Summitt leaves behind memories that span decades, as evidenced by several of her former players and assistant coaches paying tribute at her bedside in her final moments.
Those closest to her saw a compassionate side of Summitt that television viewers might not have thought existed, having seen the Lady Vols coaching legend command the floor with an icy glare.
A friendship struck up with former Tennessee men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl, however, led to Summitt allowing the general public to see there was, indeed, a lighter side to her on a late February night in 2007.
Pearl’s respect for Summitt was to the extent that he went beyond consulting her for coaching tips and into the territory of fandom, painting his chest and appearing shirtless in the bleachers to cheer on the Lady Vols.
Summitt responded by dressing as a cheerleader for a Tennessee men’s home game against defending national champion and then-No. 5-ranked Florida.
Vols quarterback legend Peyton Manning was in attendance and delivered the pregame speech to Pearl’s players, but Summitt’s rendition of Rocky Top and cheerleader attire provided the energy.
The crowd of more than 24,000 erupted when Summitt sang and mounted a human pyramid, leaving ESPN analyst Dick Vitale momentarily speechless and prompting a smile from former UT football coach Phillip Fulmer.
“You’ve got coach Fulmer behind the bench, you’ve got coach Summitt and the Lady Vols staff out there in a timeout,” Pearl said that night. “You’ve got Peyton Manning. Pretty strong family. How can you lose when you have that kind of family?”
That was precisely the formula Summitt brought to the hardwood. Her Lady Vols’ teams was almost always disciplined and focused, featuring a distinct unity in their playing style and respect for the program’s tradition.
Candace Parker, one of many great players to wear the orange and baby blue colors Summitt’s program made famous, shared her perspective following the 2008 national championship game in Tampa, Fla.
“I think all of us put our trust in Pat Summitt when we came to the University of Tennessee, and she’s been obviously more than a coach to us and she’ll be more than a coach to me for the rest of my life,” Parker said after the Lady Vols upset Stanford to win back-to-back titles.
“You play for her, you know what I mean? Because she’s been such an inspiration and just for the game of women’s basketball. She’s been there for the growth. And I just feel like it summed it all up.”
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution / SEC Country and is based in Knoxville.