Pat Summitt’s name is one that comes up often, and not just in the world of college basketball. I didn’t grow up watching college sports. I couldn’t—still can’t—name players, teams, team colors or coaches. (Full disclosure, if it wasn’t for Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs facing Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks in the 1999 NBA Finals, I still wouldn’t be watching any sports today.)
Yet despite all of this, I knew who Pat Summitt was. More specifically, I knew her words, words that were used often to inspire the athletes at my all-girls, Catholic high school. No matter how difficult practices seemed, or how disappointing losses were, Summitt’s words inspired us. When we lost volleyball games, we were reminded to “think positive thoughts daily,” reminded to “believe in yourself.” When running in August heat seemed unbearable, we were reminded that in pushing ourselves, even when physically drained, those were the moments “you become a competitor.” These words are just part of her legacy.
Born in 1952 in Clarksville, Tenn., Summitt played basketball at the University of Tennessee at Martin, achieving All-American honors. At the age of 22, at a time when college basketball for women was not yet recognized by the N.C.A.A., she became the head coach of the Lady Vols at the University of Tennessee. During Summitt’s coaching career, the Lady Vols racked up an impressive list of accomplishments. These include: 16 Southeastern Conference regular season titles, Sweet 16 appearances every year except 2009 and 18 Final Four appearances.
In addition to coaching at U.T., Summitt won the Olympic Gold Medal as head coach of the U.S. Women’s basketball team in 1984. And in 2000 she was named the Naismith Basketball Coach of the Century. And, after University of California, Los Angeles’ John Wooden and University of Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, Summitt had the most N.C.A.A. championship titles in college basketball history.
Today, after suffering from complications due to early-onset Alzheimer’s, Pat Summitt died at the age of 64. Her track record will be hard to match. Summitt had 38 years of successful coaching at U.T.; became one of the most winningest coaches in college basketball history; and was the very first coach, female or male, to reach 1,000 victories in her career.
When you list women who have “broken the glass ceiling,” particularly in the male-dominated sports world, Summitt’s name deserves a top spot—maybe the top spot.
Olga Segura is an associate editor at America.