The eyes. That’s the thing you remember most about Pat Summitt. The eyes of a fierce competitor that could cut glass — the eyes that watched so many of her players cut down championship nets during her 38 seasons as women’s basketball coach at Tennessee.
Summitt’s eyes made her seem like a hard person to some, but mostly those who envied her unprecedented success with the Lady Volunteers.
There was a heart there, too, one that engendered love from her hundreds of players and assistant coaches, many of whom came to bid her goodbye before Summitt died early Tuesday morning from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease at just 64.
“I was always impressed with how all of her former players spoke about her,” former Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning said in a university release. “You speak to people like Tamika Catchings or Chamique Holdsclaw and they just talk about the role that Pat played in all their lives on and off the court. You can just tell the impact that she had on those players.”
The same scene played out countless times.
LSU coach Nikki Fargas was among them, a player and assistant under Summitt. So was long-time Tennessee and new LSU assistant Micki DeMoss. Their love and devotion to Summitt couldn’t permit them to be anywhere else.
“It’s been a range of emotions,” a subdued Fargas said from Knoxville on Tuesday. “A lot of laughter and tears and stories told. She’s been the bridge that has connected so many eras together.”
All of them, any era you want to speak of when it comes to Tennessee women’s basketball in particular and women’s basketball at large, belonged to Summitt. For most of her 38 years on Rocky Top, she lived up to her married surname.
Pat Summitt was women’s basketball. The pinnacle. There was probably never a sport and a persona who where so inextricably wedded to each other.
Summitt was excellence personified. Eight NCAA titles. Eighteen Women’s Final Four appearances. Sixteen Southeastern Conference regular-season titles and 16 SEC tournament titles, the last won in 2012 against Fargas’ Lady Tigers. Nearly 1,100 wins overall. A 100 percent graduation rate for her players.
She demanded and got the best out of them, always. It started, Fargas said, every season at the first team meeting.
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“She’d get out her notebook and go over her ‘definite dozen,’ ” Fargas recalled. “ ‘OK, read the first one. Read the second one.’ Every year, that’s what she did.”
One sliver of proof of the Summitt method’s success is the list of women who followed her into coaching and sports administration, 78 former players and coaches. In a career that began as a player at UT Martin before Title IX became law in 1972, Summitt was an example that a woman could not only succeed, she could be the absolute best.
“That was the platform she provided for so many women,” Fargas said. “She made you feel you could do anything if you set your mind to it, treated people right and worked hard. She gave you that empowerment to do your best.
“She was a movement,” Fargas said. “Her importance is no less than that of (Muhammad) Ali or Billie Jean King. She transcends what she meant to women’s basketball to other sports.”
To her core, Summitt was a fierce competitor, one who refused to let her plane land on a recruiting trip when she went into labor with her son Tyler until it could get back to Tennessee. But there was compassion, too.
She had a great relationship and fierce rivalry with long-time LSU coach Sue Gunter, who died in 2005. When they’d greet each other, Summitt would say, “Gunter.” Gunter would reply, “Head,” calling Summitt by her maiden name.
In 2004, Gunter’s Lady Tigers and Summitt’s Lady Volunteers met in the Women’s Final Four in New Orleans. Gunter had fallen ill several weeks earlier and wasn’t in the arena that night as LSU and Tennessee squared off in the national semifinals, watching instead from LSU’s team hotel. She never coached another game.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in Division I college basketball h…
As has been the case in so many LSU-Tennessee epic encounters over the years, the Lady Vols won a squeaker, 52-50, turning over Temeka Johnson near midcourt for the winning basket in the closing seconds.
A couple of months later at the SEC Spring Meeting in Destin, Florida, I spoke to Summitt, both of us lamenting the fact Gunter didn’t get to coach LSU in its first Final Four appearance.
Summitt pursed her lips firmly and shook her head. “I would have given anything if she could have been on that other bench,” she said.
Summitt didn’t say she wished Gunter could have won, of course. The competitor in her wouldn’t go that far.
In the end, Summitt’s greatest fight was the one against Alzheimer’s that she couldn’t win. Perhaps though, her very public fight against the terrible disease and the foundation she created to combat it will help lead to a cure. That would be her greatest victory of all.
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LSU VS. PAT SUMMITT’S LADY VOLS: FIVE MEMORABLE GAMES
Feb. 23, 2003: No. 3 Tennessee 68, No. 4 LSU 65
Before 15,217 fans in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, the first SRO home crowd in Lady Tigers’ history, the Lady Volunteers rally from an eight-point deficit in the final 15 minutes to pull out the victory over an LSU team led by freshman phenom Seimone Augustus.
March 9, 2003: No. 6 LSU 78, No. 3 Tennessee 62
Two weeks later in the SEC tournament final in North Little Rock, Arkansas, the Lady Tigers bounce back with an emphatic victory to topple the regular-season champion Lady Vols. Point guard Temeka Johnson turns in an MVP performance with 24 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.
April 4, 2004: No. 2 Tennessee 52, No. 19 LSU 50
The Lady Tigers’ first Women’s Final Four appearance, in New Orleans Arena no less, ends with a familiar bitter loss to the Lady Vols. With the game tied at 50 and 6.0 seconds remaining, Johnson is triple teamed near midcourt and turns the ball over to Shyra Ely, who passes to LaToya Davis for the winning basket with 1.2 seconds left.
Feb. 9, 2006: No. 3 LSU 72, No. 5 Tennessee 69
LSU is 0-16 at Tennessee entering this game but Augustus changes all that. The senior and soon-to-be two-time national player of the year pours in 32 points and blocks a desperation 3-pointer by Shana Zolman to preserve the win. The loss snaps a 64-game SEC winning streak for the Lady Vols.
March 4, 2012: No. 10 Tennessee 70, LSU 58
For the sixth and last time the Lady Tigers meet Summitt’s Lady Vols in the SEC tournament final, this one in Nashville, Tennessee. LSU battles hard under former UT player and coach Nikki Caldwell (now Fargas) but can’t keep the Lady Vols from delivering one more emotional title for Summitt, who is coaching her last season.