KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Mickey Dearstone stood back and took in the scene at Pat Summitt Plaza Tuesday afternoon, watching as fans flocked to the statue of Summitt’s likeness to leave flowers, notes and cards.
A half-dozen television stations from around the Volunteer State broadcasted the gathering live throughout the day and into the evening, capturing the outpouring of love and respect for the legendary Tennessee women’s basketball coach.
“It reinforces that Pat put women’s basketball on the map and how iconic she was across the country,” said Dearstone, the voice of the Lady Vols over the past 24 years of Summitt’s 38-year head coaching career in Knoxville.
“Pat always said that success is not a destination, and that you had to work for it day in and day out,” Dearstone said. “There’s not anybody in the world that could say they ever saw Pat Summitt not give her all and do her best, and that’s what people need to take away. She gave her all.”
Tuesday was about giving back, with hundreds paying tribute to the fallen legend who passed away earlier that morning after a long battle with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. She was 64.
September Stewart, a 28-year-old Florida State graduate now living in Knoxville, said she could feel the spirit of the “Vol for Life” at Pat Summitt Plaza.
“I came to pay tribute to a woman who broke the glass ceiling in sports,” Stewart said. “Pat Summitt turned Knoxville into a great center of sports.
“I’m a disability rights advocate, so seeing someone who made her story so personal inspires me. I wrote a letter that I left for her, she can’t read it, of course, but I thanked her for setting the tone.”
Charles Ridge said he didn’t attend many women’s basketball games, but he felt compelled to drive up from his home in Chattanooga to honor Summitt.
“It’s a respect thing, and a Tennessee pride thing,” said Ridge, a 40-year-old gas contractor and UT alum. “The thing about Coach Summitt, she was direct, she was firm and she didn’t sugar coat anything.
“She would shake your hand and say hello at the football games, as many people as there were in that stadium, she always stopped for people. Her legacy was how she made it OK for girls to be involved in sports on the playground, and not just basketball.”
Tony Jones, a former assistant basketball coach on Bruce Pearl’s teams at Tennessee and Auburn, said he was honored to work in the same basketball building as Summitt.
“She’s on my Mt. Rushmore of coaches,” said Jones. “Right there with John Wooden, Vince Lombardi, Bobby Knight and Eddie Robinson.”
Jones said he was always in awe of Summitt.
“Each and every time we had chalk talks with Pat and the women’s staff, we got along so well, she would lead the meetings,” Jones said. “Bruce would yield the floor to Coach Summitt. He told everybody on our staff she forgot more about basketball than he would ever know.
“We talked zone offense, zone defense, out of bounds plays, and she was so knowledgeable … always, she commanded a presence.”
Former Lady Vols player Brittany Jackson (2001-05) knew that better than anyone, witnessing for herself how Summitt touched people.
“There’s been a lot of reflection over the last few days, just the memories and the impact she had on my life,” said Jackson, who went by to see Summitt on Sunday. “I’m not shocked by the love and support and all of the flowers.
“We traveled all over the country when we played, and Pat was loved everywhere,” Jackson said. “It didn’t matter if they didn’t like Tennessee basketball, they loved Pat, and what she has done for basketball and women in general is remarkable.”