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VOL. 40 | NO. 27 | Friday, July 1, 2016

A coaching legend who changed her sport

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Coach Pat Summitt with all eight of her NCAA National Championship Trophies.

-- Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

My parents were big fans of Pat Summitt. They loved the Lady Vols. They reveled in the program’s glory days.

Both of them died several years ago, so they weren’t here to see Summitt’s demise from early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, or her death from the brain disease Tuesday. She was 64.

My parents would have been sad. They would have been sad like Knoxville and the rest of Tennessee, sad like all of Summitt’s former players and coaches, sad like all those touched and inspired by Summitt through the years.

You won’t forget the day Pat Summitt died. She built the sport of women’s basketball. She won eight national championships at Tennessee. Her players sat in the front row of classes and all of them graduated from UT. They became head coaches and successful professionals.

After she died, Summitt was memorialized across the nation. Coaches, athletes, politicians and dignitaries spoke of the impact Summitt made during her life. Even President Obama issued a statement.

So did Peyton Manning, former UT and recently retired NFL quarterback.

“(Summitt) was one of the people I consulted with following my junior year when I was deciding whether to turn pro early or stay in college,” Manning said. “She gave me some very valuable advice during that time. My teammates and I went to a lot of Lady Vols games when we were in school, and I really enjoyed watching her teams play.”

Former UT football coach Phillip Fulmer enjoyed spending years coaching alongside Summitt.

“Pat Summitt was many things to many people,” Fulmer said. “Pat was a great person, loving mother, passionate coach, and loyal friend. We shared a lot of years working together and spreading the word about Tennessee athletics. We had wonderful personal times talking about life, our respective teams, or helping each other recruit.

“Her legacy as a basketball coach is iconic, but her greatest legacy may well be through The Pat Summitt Foundation and her role in leading the battle against Alzheimer’s.”

There will be a private service and burial of Summitt for family and friends in Middle Tennessee. UT will host a Celebration of Life service honoring Summitt at 7 p.m. July 14 at Thompson-Boling Arena. The service is open to the public.

I didn’t know Summitt, but I crossed paths with her several times during my career as a sports writer.

The first time was in 1986 when I covered the NCAA Women’s Final Four for the Johnson City Press. The late Melissa (McCray) Dukes, who played at Science Hill High School in Johnson City, was playing for the Lady Vols in Lexington, Kentucky, in the national semifinal. The Lady Vols lost to Cheryl Miller-led USC, 83-59, but the next year won their first NCAA championship in Austin, Texas.

My next encounter with Summitt was my most memorable, like my 15 minutes of fame with the coaching legend.

It was one of the years the SEC women’s tournament was held in Chattanooga (from 1993-97) and I was covering it for The Chattanooga Times.

I got a message from my boss to write something about the Lady Vols, and in a hurry. It was during practice sessions, and there were no interviews arranged for the day.

There was Pat Summitt, though, walking through the UTC Roundhouse. So what the heck? I walked up to Summitt and asked if she would talk with me for a few minutes.

It wasn’t a problem at all for Summitt. We sat on a couple chairs at court level, chatted for a few minutes, and my 15 minutes with fame were over.

I remember I wasn’t intimidated talking with Summitt. Instead, she welcomed an interview with a reporter she didn’t know and tried to make me feel comfortable.

A few years later, I moved to Summitt’s neck of the woods.

When The Chattanooga Times folded on Jan. 1, 1999, I soon moved to Clarksville when my wife Cheryl got a teaching job at Clarksville Academy and I got a job covering Austin Peay State University sports for The Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle.

My wife and I actually looked a house to buy in Henrietta, in Cheatham County, where Summitt grew up, before buying a house in Clarksville, where Summitt was born.

While living in Clarksville, I heard countless stories of Summitt’s life as a child. She was born June 14, 1952, the fourth of five children of the late Richard and Hazel Albright Head.

They lived on a farm in Cheatham County.

Pat worked many hours on the farm, never missed a day of school and learned to play basketball from her three older brothers.

Summitt graduated from Cheatham County High in 1970 and played basketball for the University of Tennessee-Martin, about an hour’s drive from Clarksville.

Not long after graduating UT-Martin in 1974, Summitt accepted the position as head coach of Tennessee’s women’s basketball team. Summitt was 22 years old.

Women’s basketball was an afterthought at that time. Summitt was the driving force to change that for the next 38 years as Tennessee’s coach.

When Austin Peay’s women won the OVC tournament in 2001, I covered the Lady Govs’ game against the Lady Vols in the NCAA sub-regional at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Summitt smiled the day before the game during a press conference when I asked a couple of Lady Vols if they had heard about Austin Peay’s rallying cry, “Let’s Go Peay.”

Summitt never forgot her roots.

We moved back to Knoxville in the summer of 2004, not long after my father died of heart failure. He also had dementia. He was 84.

We moved to take care of my mother, who was still an avid Lady Vol fan. She watched on a television in a nursing home when the Lady Vols won the 2007 national championship.

My mom knew of Summitt’s background and could relate. She grew up in a family with little money in the tiny town of North Tonawanda, New York. She died in the winter of 2008 before the Lady Vols won their eighth and most recent NCAA championship.

My mom loved the grit, effort and intensity with which the Lady Vols always played under Summitt.

My dad loved winning at UT, his alma mater. He was a competitor, just like Summitt. He worked hard, just like Summitt. While UT men’s coaches came and went, Summitt was a symbol of stability for Big Orange faithful like my parents.

What did I learn from Summitt?

I learned to appreciate girls’ basketball. Many of my winter nights are spent covering girls’ high school basketball, and those games are as intense as any sport I cover.

Every possession is critical. Girls get after it on the basketball court. It’s the way Summitt taught the game.

I also learned a larger-than-life figure like Summitt could be a regular person who would grant an interview on the fly to a reporter she didn’t know.

Lady Vols basketball hasn’t been the same since Summitt’s diagnosis and her retirement after the 2011-12 season. It will never be the same.

But girls and women’s basketball is alive and well. Thanks to Pat Summitt.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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