Women's basketball was an afterthought when she took the Lady Vol reins in 1974. As a rookie reporter for The Knoxville Journal that year I vividly recall covering games at Alumni Gym with so few spectators I could count them on my fingers. Straight out of UT-Martin and unmarried, Pat Head wasn't satisfied to coach a second-class program in a second-class sport. She devoted herself to two goals: 1) Elevating women's basketball at Tennessee and 2) elevating women's basketball everywhere else.
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Pat was so determined to promote her program during those early days that she routinely telephoned me at The Journal following road games. After providing some highlights – the games weren't on radio in those days – she'd give me a few quotes for my recap. Then she'd load her players into a van and drive them back to Knoxville, often arriving in the wee hours of the morning.
Pat was just as dedicated to women's basketball as she was to Lady Vol basketball. Coaches are known for their paranoia, yet she broke from the pack by routinely sharing instructional and motivational tips with her rivals.
"I'm not afraid to share," she said. "I feel like I should do everything I can to help the game."
She certainly did that. The NCAA adopted women's basketball as a varsity sport in 1981-82, increasing its credibility and visibility. Schools elevated their funding for women's hoops but the heightened competition merely motivated Pat. Under her married name of Pat Summitt she made NCAA Final Fours in 1982, '84 and '86.
Pat won her first national title in '87, enjoying it so much she won again in '89 and again in '91. During the four-year title drought that followed, critics said the game had caught up with her. She answered with back-to-back-to-back NCAA titles in '96, '97 and '98. The '98 team went 39-0, winning by an average margin of 30 points. Maybe the game hadn't caught up with her, after all.
That much success would make some coaches complacent. It made Summitt even more determined.
"It is much more difficult to handle success than failure," she said. "At the top, there are no days off."
She ultimately posted eight national titles and more than 1,000 wins before early-onset dementia forced her to step down prior to the 2012-13 season.
The playing floor at Thompson-Boling Arena was dubbed "The Summitt" in her honor and a campus street was named for her, as well. Now there is a classy-looking Pat Summitt Plaza next door to Thompson-Boling Arena that features a statue of this legendary lady.
Some folks find it ironic that a woman known for her icy glare is depicted smiling in her bronze statue. I imagine her former players are glad. They saw "the look" enough when they were playing without being greeted by it each time they return to campus.
I think the smile is most appropriate; her legacy would make anyone smile. Even more appropriate, to me, is the fact her likeness stands 8 feet, 7 inches tall.
The statue, like the woman, is bigger than life.