We all think our teams, our stories, our moments are the best. Today we get to be right.
I was a hair too young to remember Pat’s first national championship in 1987. But I remember being a kid and looking up in the rafters at newly-opened Thompson-Boling Arena, seeing those big banners with the Final Four logo and the word champion, more colorful than anything else on display. That banner helped me understand what it meant to be the best, and to believe one of my teams could do it.
Pat Summitt won a national championship in 1987 and a national championship in 2008, with six others in between. Do you realize how absurd it is in sports to win titles as a head coach at the same place 21 years apart? Last year Bob Stoops had a chance to become the college football coach with the longest gap between national championships at the same school at 16 years. In the NFL it’s Bill Belichick at 13 years. Tony LaRussa, Phil Jackson, and Pat Riley all had incredible, best-of-the-very-best runs, but not with the same team.
Red Auerbach won nine years apart in Boston. John Wooden won NCAA Tournaments over an 11-year span. Gregg Popovich did it 15 years apart. Pat’s only contemporaries on this list in major sports are Geno Auriemma, also currently at 21 years, and the man with whom she shared Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman/Sportswoman of the Year honors with in 2011: Coach K, who has now won titles at Duke 24 years apart.
But Coach K had Wooden before him, building the foundation of the sport and the definition of its greatness. Auriemma, of course, has Pat.
From our perspective, women’s basketball had no one before Pat Summitt.
I doubt that’s what she would tell you. In the statement and obituary from her foundation today, they lead with, “You win in life with people.” There were people there at the beginning, before women’s basketball was even under the NCAA’s banner, when Summitt came to Tennessee. There are a few who were there for the whole ride. None of us does what we do alone, a truth the best of us in any walk of life always know. You win in life with people.
With those people, Pat Summitt built the ship, provided the fuel, started the engines, took the wheel, got it off the ground and then flew not just the Lady Vols but women’s basketball to the stars. No one has had a greater impact on their sport through the entire process. And we type that sentence with such ease because we’ve known it for so long, but it is still a heavy, massive, rule-breaking, jaw-dropping accomplishment.
That’s the big picture in sports for Coach Summitt, the piece with the most ink but certainly not the only one. Her life, her faith, and her fight against Alzheimer’s will continue to be a gift.
The world mourns her today as an icon. We mourn her as our coach.
It’s such a privilege to be a Tennessee fan. I really believe that. A privilege to grow up here or come here for school, a gift to have the orange and white get in your bloodstream. A joy.
Look how great we have it. Not just the who’s who of Lady Vols, from Holly to Chamique to Candace. There are so, so many others and Pat’s fingerprints are on every single one.
Tennessee has players who have redefined entire positions like Reggie White and Peyton Manning. Native sons who brought such joy back home in Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer. And those who transformed entire sports on campus like Ernie & Bernie, Bruce Pearl, and Ralph & Karen Weekly.
And all of them, every single one, looked up to Pat.
A generation from now I hope we have more banners in the rafters at Thompson-Boling or wherever we’re playing basketball. I hope our men’s team is flying something more than an Elite Eight flag and the Lady Vols continue to uphold the standard they inherited.
It’s the floor at Thompson-Boling where future generations will have the best chance to remember. Her name. Surpassing even the greatness of all those banners. We who had the privilege of watching all these years now get the privilege of telling the story. And everyone who plays basketball in the orange and white gets the privilege of stepping onto her floor. She didn’t just win eight national titles here. She helped make sure every woman who laces up their shoes and steps on hundreds of floors across America has a chance to win big too.
She won with people. Many did it with her, and many more of us were privileged to watch, to cheer, to celebrate. But she has no equal. She is The Summitt.