It was the day before the 2007 NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship when reporter Christine Brennan posed a slightly philosophical question about the use of “Lady Vols” to Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.
“With all due respect to the brand and what you have created there, is it time to get rid of that adjective and just have everyone be Vols?” Brennan asked.
“I don’t think that will ever change at Tennessee,” Summitt said.
Brennan pressed her. “Should it?” she asked.
“No,” Summitt said. Brennan still remembers getting that stare, that famous icy blue stare that could elicit panic in players, coaches and even seasoned sports writers. “No. Because that’s who we’re known as, as the Lady Vols. I think our players would be the first to say we don’t want to change it. That’s who we are; that’s how people know us.”
It seems like such an anomaly in her legacy. Pat Summitt changed the landscape for women athletes. No longer did women have an artificial ceiling on their athletic potential. No longer did they need to be treated as if they were made out of candy glass. She is the matriarch of modern women’s basketball, seizing its potential and constantly moving the game forward. Yet she held on to where she came from, to that tradition of “Lady Vols.” The struggle was part of her identity.
Summitt, who died Tuesday at the age of 64 from Alzheimer’s, has an endless basketball resume. Her 1,098 career wins are the most of any basketball coach (men’s or women’s) in NCAA Division I history. Her teams won eight national titles. Her honors are numerous, highlighted by the Presidential Medal of Freedom along with induction into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
But her 38 years of coaching was always about more than wins and losses, greater than championships and conference titles.
She’s been called a pioneer, an icon and a role model who still always identified herself as “Lady Vol.”
“Her teams defied the demure, ladylike traditions of other women's sports like tennis and some Olympic sports, which is why she has such a remarkable place in U.S. cultural history and yet she continued to use the adjective,” Brennan said, recalling Summitt's fierce loyalty to the “Lady Vol” brand. “It really was and is a stunning contradiction.”
Summitt didn’t fear the contradiction. She didn’t apologize for it, either. When she took over the Tennessee program at age 22, she drove the team van and washed the uniforms. She held bake sales to help fund the program. Much like her upbringing on a farm in rural Tennessee, where hard work was the name of the game, the experience shaped her and became part of her identity. Women may have come a long way, but a “Lady Vol” is who Summitt
was, even if she defied the expectations of what a “lady” did, especially on a basketball court.
There was the stare. There was yelling. Players offering testimonials time and again tell how Summitt got into their faces. She was demanding. She had high expectations. She was passionate. And in doing that she gave other women permission to be demanding (of themselves and others) and to live passionately.
“Many times I thought I was too much for this sport. My passion can be a little over the top,” said UB women’s coach Felisha Leggett-Jack. “When you love something with your whole heart, you can’t hide it; it exudes out of your body and still now I struggle when people around you say that’s not how a lady’s supposed to act.
“I remember watching Pat going up and down the sidelines and being excited and it was OK. I’m so grateful there was somebody before me that paced that sideline, was an unbelievable mother and a wife yet was a passionate coach who pushed her kids to the point where they flowered and became something different than they imagined they could. She gave people like me permission to just be me and not apologize and gave fans permission to accept women’s basketball for the great game it is.”
While the adjective “demanding” may be most widely associated with Summitt, she also was exceedingly kind and gracious.
Kara Rehbaum, a former player and coach at Canisius College, wore all orange on Tuesday to her job at Hilbert as the school’s assistant athletics director. She recalled coaching the Griffs when they opened the 1996-97 season with a tournament in Vermont that also included Tennessee.
Shoot-around times for the teams overlapped and Rehbaum had a brief discussion with Summitt.
“She was so nice, so accommodating. She wanted to talk about me as a young coach with a new family,” Rehbaum said.
We didn't talk very long, but she was encouraging and really cared about me as a young coach.”
Perhaps it’s another one of those contradictions – Summitt could be tough as nails but cared deeply about her team. The combination produced winning seasons and inspired other coaches, male and female. Her dedication was to the team and her immense gift was getting the top recruits of the day to give up individual glory for team success.
“She was intense and she was driven and she was challenging and it worked,” said former Bona women’s coach Jim Crowley, now with Providence. “Not only did it work on the court, but off the court players loved her and had this great loyalty to her. … For me as a coach, obviously all the pioneer stuff goes without saying, but to see how much her whole group wanted to be successful, they wanted success for the group. She took the individual out of it. It was all about the Lady Vols and she was the best at it any sport."