Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in Division I college basketball history, died Tuesday following a five-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 64.
Summitt coached the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team for 38 years, winning eight national titles and becoming a renowned and revered ambassador for women’s sports. In 1984, she won an Olympic gold medal as head coach of the women’s basketball team. She was once approached by Tennessee officials about coaching the university’s men’s team, The New York Times reported. Summitt declined the offer, asking, “Why is that considered a step up?”
President Barack Obama, who awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, said in a statement that “nobody walked off a college basketball court victorious more times” than Summitt.
“Her unparalleled success includes never recording a losing season in 38 years of coaching, but also, and more importantly, a 100 percent graduation rate among her players who completed their athletic eligibility,” Obama said. “Her legacy, however, is measured much more by the generations of young women and men who admired Pat’s intense competitiveness and character, and as a result found in themselves the confidence to practice hard, player harder and live with courage on and off the court.”
Players recalled that intense competitiveness and character Tuesday as they shared memories of the coach. Summitt sometimes slapped the court so hard during games, she flattened the rings on her fingers, requiring them to be rounded out again after the season ended. “She has changed the way I looked at life, and the way all her players have,” said Candace Parker, a former player of Summitt’s who now plays for the Los Angeles Sparks of the Women’s National Basketball Association.
A 1998 Sports Illustrated profile described how Summitt’s coaching often inspired her players to become mentors themselves. After graduating from Tennessee, a former player named Michelle Marciniak began mentoring a 15-year-old player named Amanda who lived near her hometown.
“The story doesn’t end with Michelle -- it goes through her, and on to people that Pat will never know, because Michelle is now the carrier of a spore,” Gary Smith wrote in the profile. “Michelle takes Amanda under her wing -- plays ball with her, lifts weights with her, talks about life with her and tells her all about Pat. She tells Amanda how much she misses that lady now, how much she misses that sense of mission all around her -- the urgency of 12 young women trying to be the best they can, every day, every moment. ‘Let’s run,’ she says to Amanda one day, but she doesn’t run alongside the girl. She just takes off, barely conscious that she has already joined the legions of Pat’s former players all over America who are spreading the urgency, breathing into thousands of teenage girls a new relationship with time.”
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