Niya Butts couldn’t believe it. She’d gone to class, was always on time for practice, never got in trouble off the court. And yet here came Pat Summitt one afternoon in the late 1990s, her famous and frightening stare burning a hole right through Butts.
The legendary Tennessee women’s basketball coach was angry about something teammate Kyra Elzy had done.
“Coach Summitt looked me square in the eye and said, ‘If Kyra screws up one more time, you’re going home,’” Butts remembers. “I thought, ‘How is this possible? I have done nothing! And she’s telling me if somebody else gets in trouble, it’s going to be my tail?’ It shocked me, but it has never left me, because in essence what she was saying to me and the message she was trying to send to everyone who was paying attention was: You don’t live in this world by yourself.
“She would challenge us daily to not only care for ourselves but care for each other. To me, that will be her legacy.”
Summitt took that philosophy to an extreme: It seemed she felt responsible to care for an entire sport – to elevate it even as she dominated it – kicking down doors, inspiring dreams and stirring a national interest in women’s college basketball that literally changed the game.
When Summitt died Tuesday morning at the age of 64, five years after announcing she’d been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, an entire country mourned not the woman who won 1,098 games, eight national championships and Olympic gold, but the pioneer who poured her life into one pursuit: making us care.
“She taught us what it meant to be a giver and not a taker,” said Butts, who played on two of Summitt’s national title teams and went on to become a head coach herself at Arizona the last eight seasons. “I’m certainly a little bit biased, but I also pay attention, and I don’t think there has ever been or will ever be anyone who has a greater impact on our game and how we see it today than Coach Summitt.”
When she reached high school, there still wasn’t a girls’ basketball team in her hometown of Clarksville, Tenn., so Summitt’s family had to move to nearby Cheatham County. When she became the head coach at Tennessee in 1974 – at just 22 years old – Title IX was still in its infancy. No one was paying attention.
Today, every game of the women’s NCAA Tournament is televised on ESPN. President Barack Obama, who awarded Summitt the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, fills out a women’s bracket on TV each year. The WNBA, founded in 1996 and full of former Lady Vols, has allowed little girls to imagine being professional basketball players when they grow up.
And it can all be traced back to Knoxville, where today there is a court and a street and a statue in Summitt’s honor.
“She put women’s basketball on the map,” said Cindy Brogdon, one of the coach’s breakthrough recruits at Tennessee. “In the early days, she would drive the van to our road games. She would wash the uniforms. She would get out in the community, with all of that charisma of hers, and convince people to come see us play. She would do what it took to make her players feel special, to let us know that she loved us.
“Because of that, she could be hard on us. I can recall nothing less than four-hour practices – she really drilled us – but whatever it took to make her happy, we wanted to do it. We were ready to let people know that women’s basketball was important, and we believed she was going to help us do that.”
Brogdon met Summitt when both were trying out for the 1976 Olympics, the first to include women’s basketball. The selection committee paired the two of them for a game of 1-on-1. Brogdon was a nervous teenager and Summitt, already coaching at Tennessee by then, had done her homework.
“She knew I was a great offensive player but my defense was terrible, so she came after me,” Brogdon remembers. “She beat me 5-0. That was my introduction to Pat, my first dose of how aggressive she was and how, if I was going to be around her, I was going learn to play defense.”
But then came the other side. After they both made the team, which would win silver at the Olympics, Summitt invited Brogdon to be her roommate for the remainder of training and at the games. She readily shared her knowledge and friendship, which eventually moved Brogdon to transfer from Mercer to Tennessee for her final two seasons of college ball.
“You meet certain people and feel like it was sort of meant to be; she felt meant to be,” said Brogdon, who averaged more than 20 points per game for the Lady Vols and helped launch the program with a 30-win season and Final Four berth in 1979. “People see her from the outside as a very demanding, very disciplined individual, but she had one of the softest and kindest hearts I’ve ever met.”
That’s what struck Matthew Mitchell when, in his mid-20s, he met Summitt during her run of three straight national championships from 1996-98. Now the head coach at the University of Kentucky, Mitchell back then was just a wide-eyed high school history teacher and coach from a small town in Mississippi who’d somehow gotten invited to work Summitt’s summer camp.
Tamika Catchings, now a 10-time WNBA All-Star, was a recruit back then and her high school coach was also at the camp, “so Pat would’ve had a lot to gain by befriending her and spending time with her,” Mitchell said. “But she treated that coach no different than she treated somebody like me, a young guy from Mississippi who had no chance of ever helping her.
“We’d have these skull sessions late into the night after camp, when I know she was probably dead tired, and we would ask questions and she would stay there until she’d answered them all.”
Something about Mitchell’s enthusiasm impressed Summit, and she hired him as a graduate assistant for the 1999-2000 season in which the Lady Vols were NCAA runners-up. That changed the course of a career that has led Mitchell to become the winningest women’s coach in UK history.
His program set an attendance record in 2013 when a sell-out crowd of 23,706 filled Rupp Arena, where the Wildcats men play, for a game against Duke. Before Summitt, such things were unheard of.
“Her fingerprints are all over it,” Mitchell said. “In terms of high-profile champions of women’s sports, Billy Jean King and Pat are at the top. She never grew weary of promoting the game, never big-timed anybody, always stopped for a picture or an autograph or to teach a little more. She was just never too busy to help women’s basketball grow.”
Those close to Summitt say the last year was painful – that her death was in some ways a relief – because she no longer recognized old friends. It was impossible to know if their messages of comfort and gratitude were getting through. But if she can hear them now, the sentiment is almost universal: You did it, Pat. You made us care.
“When I see her again, I’ll give her a big hug and tell her, ‘Thank you,'” Mitchell said. “Where I am now, it’s because she took an interest in me. She allowed me to be attached to her, and that is life-changing. I’m just one story among literally millions.
“Whether you read one of her books and were inspired by that, or you were a fan who got excited about women’s basketball for the first time, or you were one of the lucky ones like me who got to work for her or play for her, she changed so many lives. She changed mine in an unimaginable way.”
*Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.