(Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)
We all knew that Summitt's departure was coming someday. We hoped that it wouldn't be for another couple of years or so, but life is what it is, and none of us escape the frailty of our own bodies. I don't really have any words of wisdom, many have already attempted to summarize her amazing list of achievements, and there are others who are far more qualified to wax poetically on Summitt's career; I do, however, have my own perspective from the peanut gallery, and I can offer that much, at least.
Like pretty much everybody else, I have spent a long time being constantly amazed at the career of Pat Summitt. My own first recollections of her came in the mid-90s, when she began the three-time national championship streak. I didn't really care much for basketball at any level then (and, really, I still don't), but I can remember being very impressed with the team that I saw on television on occasion, and the reverence the announcers had for Summitt made the whole thing more interesting. That was a long time before I moved out of the Mountain Time Zone, and I had no idea I would ever be in Knoxville (much less writing about the Lady Vols), but they quickly became my favorite team for one simple fact: they were the hardest working basketball team I had ever seen, and I had always wanted to see the game played as a team sport.
After moving to Knoxville in 2006, I was treated to two consecutive national championships by a team that now played just a few buildings down from my department. Thanks to an overambitious class slate, I didn't get to attend a game the first year, but I still remember the mood on campus when they won title number seven. The next year, I made a point of going and saw my first Lady Vols game live - an SEC contest against Arkansas. The final score was 98-55 and a freshman Angie Bjorklund went 7-16 beyond the arc to tie the then-record for threes by a Lady Vol in one game. (Hence the eventual moniker of 3jorklund used on this site.) That 7-16 was much better until the very end, when the team kept insisting that she shoot more threes to try to get the record outright. But until that point, it was an utter mauling, with Tennessee imposing their will at any level. It was what Tennessee did, and it's what we thought they'd always do.
We thought it would always happen because the lady driving the team left them no other choice. Pat Summitt, above all else, accepts nothing short of perfection. She keeps stars out of games if they're not doing well enough in classes (way before any NCAA thresholds would take effect), resulting in a 100% graduation rate for players with 4 years in the program (i.e. almost all of them). She drives her players so persistently that even the best ones hear her drill-sergeant instructions in their heads well into WNBA careers. She cares so much about making the game the best it can be that she accepts phone calls from other head coaches (occasionally even rivals) at any available time and unreservedly offers her thoughts and advice. She is so concerned for her players' well-being that they can call her up at any time for support or a friendly hello - long after graduation. No matter the situation, there is only one answer: the best, or die trying.
That driving force has been so overwhelmingly powerful and consistent that it took a mighty medical jolt of reality to remind us that Pat Summitt is human. And that, in all honesty, is where her greatest beauty lies: Pat Summitt's greatness is not her excellence in the spotlight, but her drive for excellence in all the little details of life. And it's something we can all do.
As best as I understand, her strongest influence was her father. Whether it was Pat's classes, helping on the farm, basketball, going to college, or even coaching at 22 years old, she never knew a time when anything less than her best was 'good enough, this time'. Perfect, or failure. It was a difficult way to grow up, and very few of us can relate to it, but it formed her approach to the world and cemented it in the little details of life - long before anybody beyond the borders of her family's farm would ever see her work.
When it came time for Pat to take the public eye, she simply did what she had done her entire life: find the best course of action and give the best possible effort.
That's it. That's the whole formula. There's nothing else to add.
And that's why it's so incredibly captivating. We're used to looking for heroes in the form of super-humans who can do things nobody else can do. And while Pat was a terrific player and a very natural mentor, her biggest strength was simply giving 100% effort. All the freaking time. She's a hero we can all relate to; we know she's human and she struggles with her own limits just like we do, only she's laid everything on the table every day.
The disease that forced Pat Summitt to hand over her whistle reminds us all that we never saw a comic book superhero, but we saw one of our own. And if a Tennessee farmer's daughter can exert as much influence as Pat Summitt, then the rest of us sell ourselves far short when we settle for 'good enough'. That's what humbles me the most about Pat, and that's the main reason I admire her so much.