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How Pat Summitt Transformed College Sports

3 minute read

Pat Summitt never wandered too far from the Tennessee hay fields where she grew up doing her chores. But that didn’t stop her from becoming the winningest Division I college-basketball coach of all time, with 1,098 victories and eight national titles over a 38-year career at the University of Tennessee–and inspiring a generation of female athletes. No other college coach was more important, or more transformative, than Summitt.

When she first started coaching at Tennessee, a few years after Title IX was enacted in 1972, Summitt, who died on June 28 at 64, drove the van. Her team slept in another team’s gym because they didn’t have funding for hotel rooms. In order to pay for uniforms, Summitt once held a doughnut sale.

By the time she stopped coaching in 2012, the women’s Final Four was a nationally televised spectacle that filled NBA arenas. Her sideline intensity, and the ferocity and skill of her teams, attracted fans and won her widespread respect, proving that women’s basketball could and should share an ESPN stage with men’s. This visibility inspired legions of girls to try basketball, soccer or some other sport. In 1971, fewer than 300,000 girls participated in high school sports. Today, there are more than 3 million.

Despite her phenomenal success, Summitt–the first women’s college hoops coach to make $1 million a year–never lost her curiosity about, or care for, others. All of her players who completed their basketball eligibility graduated. And in 2011, when she was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, she vowed to help find a cure. “Put away your hankies,” she wrote, addressing her fans after starting the Pat Summitt Foundation to help fund Alzheimer’s research. “There’s not going to be any pity party. We’re going to fight, and we’re going to fight publicly.”

In 2012, President Obama awarded Summitt the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor for an American. The Pat Summitt Alzheimer’s Clinic, at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, is scheduled to open in December.

Her legacy endures in the sports world as well. “She paved the way,” Kim Mulkey, head women’s basketball coach at Baylor University, told ESPN. “We have the salaries we have today because of Pat Summitt, we have the exposure we have today because of Pat Summitt. She wasn’t afraid to fight.” Mary Jo Kane, a University of Minnesota sports sociologist, puts Summitt and the tennis champion Billie Jean King, alone, on the Mount Rushmore of U.S. women’s sports. “Pat Summitt didn’t complain about the inequities,” says Kane. “Instead, she built a legacy, she built a dynasty. And she did it with dignity and class.”


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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com