Pat Summitt hailed as a pioneer whose achievements stretched beyond sports

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By Liz Clarke, Washington Post

Pat Summitt, the steely-eyed women’s basketball coach with an intolerance of anything short of excellence, was remembered Tuesday as a national treasure, enduring role model, the ultimate champion and, above all, for elevating notions of what was possible for female athletes in all sports.

Summitt, who led Tennessee women’s basketball to eight national championships, died early Tuesday morning at age 64 after a five-year battle with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Tennessee vice chancellor and athletic director Dave Hart called her “synonymous with Tennessee” and “a global icon who transcended sports and spent her entire life making a difference in other people’s lives.”

Those sentiments were echoed on social media and TV and radio broadcasts by politicians, former peers and rivals alike, along with legions of Lady Vols fans and admirers throughout the sporting world. Maryland women’s basketball coach Brenda Frese was among them.

“Just like a lot of young girls, I grew up admiring Coach Summitt, and she’s a big reason I’m in this business,” Frese said in a statement shared by the university. “Her legacy will live on, and she will be missed.”

Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder called her an inspiration. “I have a heavy heart this morning, hearing about the loss of one of the greatest women’s basketball legends ever. When I began coaching in the 1980s, I listened to Pat at my first clinic and I knew that I wanted to be a coach. She inspired me, and gave us all an example of what it takes to chase excellence. Thanks Pat for showing us the way.”

Said Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma, her chief rival, on ESPN’s “SportsCenter:” “She was the defining figure of the game of women’s basketball. A lot of people coach the game, but very few people get to define the game.”

Former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning, who developed a close relationship with Summitt during his career at Tennessee, recalled leaning on her for advice when weighing whether to turn pro after his junior season in Knoxville.

“I miss her, and I love her very much,” Manning told ESPN. “It’s a very sad day.”

Diagnosed in spring 2011 at age 58, Summitt coached one more season before stepping down in April 2012, assuming the title of “head coach emeritus.” She had kept a low profile since, as her condition progressed, remaining largely out of the public eye.

As news of Summitt’s worsening condition spread among those closest to her, former players including Candace Parker, Tamika Catchings, Michelle Marciniak and Nikki Caldwell traveled to Knoxville to visit one last time.

“She is a legend and has touched so many lives,” said Parker, who plays for the WNBA”s Los Angeles Sparks, after the visit. “She changes the individual, and she has changed the way that I have looked at life, and she has changed the way all of her players have.”

Public acknowledgment of her precarious state came Sunday morning, when the foundation that bears her name and supports Alzheimer’s research released a statement confirming that the past few days “had been difficult” and seeking prayers and privacy.

An outpouring followed on social media, as athletes and coaches from across the sporting world voiced their love, support and gratitude via the hashtag #PrayforPat. Among those paying tribute were Tennessee football coach Butch Jones, Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs, Duke football coach David Cutcliffe, who spent 19 years as a Tennessee assistant, and a host of former Connecticut players who had battled Summitt’s Lady Vols, including Swin Cash of the WNBA’s New York Liberty.

“Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts, a basketball standout at Southeastern Louisiana, sought prayers on Summitt’s behalf via Twitter and wore orange on Monday’s program as a show of support. She eulogized the late coach on Tuesday’s program.

Early Tuesday morning, Summitt’s son, Tyler, released a statement announcing that his mother had died peacefully at Sherrill Hill Senior Living in Knoxville, surrounded by loved ones.

Summitt was a 20-year-old basketball standout at Tennessee-Martin when Title IX, the federal legislation guaranteeing equal opportunity in athletics and education, was enacted in 1972. And her achievements as a coach unfolded in step with the pioneering law. But for Summitt, the equality that Title IX promised was hardly her life’s goal. Her aspiration and expectation — both for herself and for the athletes she coached — was to be the best.

Summitt’s 1,098 college basketball victories are more than any coach, man or woman, in NCAA Division I sports. She coached 20 All-Americans and spawned a pipeline of more than 70 former players and assistants who went on to coach basketball in the high school, college and pro ranks.

On the international stage, she was the first U.S. Olympian to win medals as both a player (silver, 1976) and coach (gold, 1984). That was but one among a list of “firsts” that could fill a stack of résumés.

She was the first women’s college basketball coach and fourth overall to win 800 games, the first college women’s basketball coach to earn a $1 million salary and the first women’s basketball coach to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Named Naismith Women’s Collegiate Coach of the Century in 2000, she was bestowed with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, in ceremonies at the White House in 2012. Said President Barack Obama at the time: “When I think about my two daughters, who are tall and gifted, and knowing that because of folks like Coach Summitt they’re standing up straight and diving after loose balls and feeling confident and strong, then I understand that the impact that these people have had extends beyond me. It will continue for generations to come.”

Initial indications that something was awry with Summitt’s mental state were easily rationalized. She’d always had trouble misplacing her car keys and cellphone. But it was cause for concern when the coach so exacting about punctuality started forgetting times she had set for team meetings. Most notably, the coach who was so expert on the sideline seemed hesitant about her play-calling.

The diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s, which followed a battery of tests at the Mayo Clinic, came as a shock. With the support of Tennessee’s president and athletic director, she resolved to continue coaching, aided by three trusted assistants.

“A pity party is a waste of time,” Summitt told the Tennessean at the time. “It doesn’t do any good to feel sorry for yourself.”

But after one season under the arrangement, she announced in April 2012, eight months after disclosing her diagnosis, that she would step aside as head basketball coach after 38 seasons. Summitt concluded her head coaching career with a 1,098-208 record and an .841 winning percentage. The Lady Vols never had a losing season under her.

Yet even as the glittering statistics and specifics of her coaching career faded from memory because of her illness, Summitt retained the essence of her achievement and her bond with four decades of players.

“My memories are not so much made up of information, but rather of episodes and engagements with the people I love,” Summitt wrote in her 2013 biography “Sum it Up,” the last of three books co-written with Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins. “The things I struggle with — times, dates, schedules — are things you could as easily read on a digital watch or a calendar. But people and emotions are engraved in me.”

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