Tennessee coaching legend Pat Summitt dies at 64

Ms. Summitt coached the Lady Vols for 38 seasons, winning 1,098 games, more than any Division 1 basketball coach.
John Summers II/Reuters/File 2007
Ms. Summitt coached the Lady Vols for 38 seasons, winning 1,098 games, more than any Division 1 basketball coach.

NEW YORK — Pat Summitt, who was at the forefront of a broad ascendance of women’s sports, winning eight national basketball titles at the University of Tennessee and more games than any other Division I college coach, male or female, died Tuesday. She was 64.

Her death was confirmed on the website of the Pat Summitt Foundation.

Ms. Summitt stepped down after 38 seasons and 1,098 victories at Tennessee in April 2012, at 59, less than a year after she learned she had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.


Over nearly four decades, Ms. Summitt helped transform women’s college basketball from a sport ignored by the National Collegiate Athletic Association into one that drew national television audiences and paid its most successful coaches more than $1 million a year.

Saul Young/Knoxville News Sentinel/AP/File
Ms. Summitt (center) attended a Tennessee vs. Alabama game in January.
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“In modern history, there are two figures that belong on the Mount Rushmore of women’s sports — Billie Jean King and Pat Summitt,” Mary Jo Kane, a sports sociologist at the University of Minnesota, said in 2011. “No one else is close.”

Ms. Summitt, who was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, was a trailblazer and missionary. She was a co-captain of the 1976 women’s Olympic team, which won a silver medal, then guided the United States to gold as head coach at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. All of her players who completed their eligibility at Tennessee also graduated, school officials said.

Through much of her tenure at Tennessee, Ms. Summitt opened her locker room to television cameras and gave viewers an unfiltered look at her demanding style, her steely glare, and her unapologetically withering remarks to her players and to referees. Her hands pounded the court with such intensity sometimes that she flattened the rings on her fingers and had to have them rerounded in the offseason.

Her childhood on a Tennessee farm lent Ms. Summitt a rural hardiness. When she gave birth to her only child, Tyler, in 1990, she went into labor while on a recruiting trip in Pennsylvania and urged the pilots to fly her home so that her son would be born in Tennessee.


A month before she won her final championship, in 2008, Ms. Summitt dislocated her shoulder while shoving a raccoon off the deck of her home in Knoxville, then tried for two hours to reset her shoulder before calling a doctor. Her best teams displayed a similar toughness and determination, playing with ravenous attention to defense and rebounding.

“There may be coaches that win more than Pat, but there will never be another Pat Summitt,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said.

She was born Patricia Sue Head on June 14, 1952, in Clarksville, Tenn. The fourth of five children, she slept in a baby bed until she was 6. Her farmer father, Richard, was a disciplinarian who, she recalled, admonished his children that “cows don’t take a day off.”

In the day, she joined her three older brothers in baling hay and chopping tobacco. At night, she played basketball with her brothers and neighbors. “I was the only girl,” Ms. Summitt once said. “They beat me up, but it made me tougher.”

Title IX, the federal law that prohibited discrimination in schools based on gender, was passed in 1972, but expanded opportunities for female athletes came haltingly. The NCAA did not begin sponsoring women’s basketball until 1982, 43 years after it held its first postseason tournament for men.


Still, the women’s game thrived in rural enclaves in such states as Tennessee and Texas, where girls who worked on farms could not be told with any seriousness they lacked the endurance to play sports.

Ms. Summitt attended the University of Tennessee Martin and, upon graduating in 1974, became head coach at the University of Tennessee’s flagship campus in Knoxville. At 22, she was barely older than her players. She made $250 a month to coach basketball and attend graduate school. She held a doughnut sale to help pay for team uniforms, which she washed herself.

Her team once slept on mats at an opponent’s gym because there was no money for a hotel.

She drove the team van to games, so intent on winning that “we never even stopped at McDonald’s,” said Holly Warlick, who played for Summitt at Tennessee, served as a longtime assistant, and succeeded her as head coach.

Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press/File
Ms. Summitt received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2012.

Ms. Summitt’s first game at Tennessee ended in a 1-point defeat. When she phoned her parents to give them the news, she recalled, her father offered a bit of advice: “Tricia, don’t take donkeys to the Kentucky Derby” — meaning that the best coaches recruited the top players. For most of 38 seasons, she did.

Her two biggest stars, Chamique Holdsclaw of Queens and Candace Parker of suburban Chicago, led the Lady Vols to five of Ms. Summitt’s eight national titles and are considered two of the best women’s collegiate players of all time. Ms. Summitt’s best team, guided by Holdsclaw and reliant on relentless offense and aggressive defense, finished 39-0 to win the title in 1998. To that point, no women’s team had won as many games in a season.

As the number of championships climbed, so did Ms. Summitt’s salary, eventually reaching $1.25 million a year. She was once approached by Tennessee officials about coaching the men’s team. She dismissed the overture, asking, “Why is that considered a step up?”

Ms. Summitt’s marriage of 27 years to R.B. Summitt, a banker, ended in divorce in 2008. She leaves her son, Tyler, who was the women’s coach at Louisiana Tech before resigning this year over what was described as “an inappropriate relationship”; her mother, Hazel Albright Head; her sister, Linda Atteberry; and her brothers, Kenneth, Tommy, and Charles Head.

Ms. Summitt’s eighth and final national title came in 2008, three short of the 11 titles won by Geno Auriemma, who coaches the Connecticut women’s team.

Ms. Summitt remained insatiable for victory, and defeat left her inconsolable. The low point of her career came with a stunning loss to Ball State in the first round of the 2009 NCAA tournament. At the time, Tennessee was the two-time defending national champion. None of her teams had left the tournament so early.

Afterward, she returned to her hotel room and watched replays all night.

“I didn’t sleep,” she later said. “I was so mad I threw things at the TV, yelled, screamed, cried.”

The next day, the team returned to campus and Ms. Summitt made them practice, even though the season was over.

Peyton Manning, who sought Ms. Summitt’s advice about returning to Tennessee for his senior season or going to the NFL, said it would have been a great experience to play for her. ‘‘She could have coached any team, any sport, men’s or women's. It wouldn’t have mattered because Pat could flat out coach,’’ Manning said in a statement.

Summitt received the only sustained criticism of her career in 2007, when she canceled the annual games between Tennessee and Connecticut, a rivalry matched in college basketball only by that between the Duke and North Carolina men’s teams. She cited her concern with UConn’s recruiting of Maya Moore, who led the Huskies to two national titles and a record 90-game winning streak.

UConn did receive a slap on the wrist from the NCAA for arranging a tour for Moore of ESPN’s studios in Bristol, Conn. But that was considered a minor rules violation. Some sports commentators, and even some of Summitt’s former players, felt that she had put her personal conflict with Auriemma, the UConn coach, ahead of the overall good of women’s basketball.

“I am who I am,” Summitt said. “I will not compromise. No one is going to talk me into doing something I don’t want to do, when I know what I have been doing is by the book.”

Ms. Summitt began to notice changes in herself during the 2010-11 season: She grew forgetful during games; she lost track of meetings. After the season, doctors told her she had early onset Alzheimer’s.

She coached through the 2011-12 season, though her assistant coaches assumed most of her duties. After the season, she retired and started a foundation to raise awareness about dementia.

Her memoir, “Sum It Up” (written with Sally Jenkins), was a best seller in 2013.

Fans left flowers and a basketball Tuesday at a statue honoring Summitt in Knoxville.
Wade Payne/Associated Press
Fans left flowers and a basketball Tuesday at a statue honoring Summitt in Knoxville.