Laughter, tears, cheers and an a cappella rendition of “Rocky Top” filled Thompson-Boling Arena for a “Celebration of Life” for Pat Summitt – and the final farewell for the Lady Vols iconic basketball coach.
Patricia Sue Head Summitt – as the official program stated – was celebrated as a coach – but even more so as a mother, mentor, leader and luminary.
“Thank you for sharing Pat Summitt with us,” emcee Robin Roberts said to the dozens of former Lady Vols sitting in front of the stage.
When those players were asked to stand by former Lady Vol Tamika Catchings - nearly 100 were in the arena - the thousands of fans in attendance rose to their feet and applauded, the noise level building with each passing second. Had Catchings not resumed speaking, they might still be cheering.
“This is not good bye but until we meet again,” Catchings said. “We love you, Pat.”
It was Holly Warlick who brought down the house, however, when she concluded her anecdote-filled speech by holding a Lady Vol flag over her head and declaring: “Once a Lady Vol, always a Lady Vol.” Warlick then pointed to the ceiling to salute Summitt - her mentor and friend and the reason the Lady Vols logo resonates still.
Warlick’s remarks were followed by a video montage that interspersed Warlick, Nikki Caldwell, Michelle Marciniak, Brittany Jackson and Candace Parker, among others, talking about Summitt. The former players were overcome by tears in the video clips, and those in attendance Thursday at the arena shared their sorrow.
The only sounds that could be heard, besides the words on the video, were the soft crying of people in attendance.
“I love you with all of my heart, and I hope you rest in peace,” Warlick said as the remarks drew to a close, and the video ended with a photo montage and voiceover from Summitt.
It was Peyton Manning who received the second-loudest applause from the approximately 7,000 people in attendance, as the former Vol and NFL quarterback took the stage. Manning was a close friend of Summitt and mentioned how he and the coach would always get together for a steak and beer when he was in Knoxville or she was in Indianapolis.
He said that he and coach Phillip Fulmer had visited Summitt after Alzheimer’s disease was clearly taking its toll, knowing that she would not recognize them. But Summitt smiled and talked to them during the visit.
When Manning was at Summitt’s funeral – she died June 28, just two weeks after her 64th birthday – he was wracked with grief. But it was former Lady Vol Chamique Holdsclaw who comforted Manning. She told him that when she was visiting with Summitt and one of his commercials would come on television, Summitt would say: “That’s my friend. He comes to visit me. There goes my friend.”
The gasps were audible in the arena – as the exchange hit home with anyone who has dealt with Alzheimer’s in their family – and as the emotion of the moment overwhelmed Manning.
“In saying good bye for the last time, we can all say, ‘There goes our friend,’ ” Manning said.
Warlick, who is entering her fifth season as the head coach of the Lady Vols basketball program after Summitt was forced to retire after the 2011-12 season, and former Lady Vol assistant coach Mickie DeMoss brought some levity to the evening with their stories about Summitt.
Warlick noted that she had never seen Summitt nervous – not even before national championship games – but she was pacing the back hallways of the arena before she was to sing “Rocky Top” at halftime of a Tennessee men’s basketball game against Florida in 2007. It was a return favor to former Vols coach Bruce Pearl, who had painted his chest orange at a Lady Vols game.
Summitt walked up and down the hall practicing the lyrics. It turned out that Summitt had a fear of singing in public, compounded by her mother Hazel calling her that morning, reminding her daughter that the game was nationally televised and adding, “Don’t embarrass me or yourself.”
Hazel Head was in the front row Thursday seated beside grandson Tyler Summitt, who spoke at the service.
He was the first speaker introduced by Roberts, anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America and close family friend. Tyler Summitt, on behalf of the family, thanked everyone for attending, and explained why his mother’s orange stool was on the stage with her whistle draped across it.
“This was her platform where we saw her passion and intensity,” said Tyler Summitt, who centered his speech on his mother’s love, heart for others and faith.
“I heard three words every single day of my life, ‘I love you,’ ” he said.
He shared the oft-told story of when he was 6 years old and asked his mother how he was doing on the soccer field. She came down to his level, took off her sunglasses and told her son that he was not being physical or aggressive enough. So Tyler returned to the field, followed his mother’s instructions and drew the considerable ire of his coach for being out of position.
“She hadn’t realized I was the goalie,” he said. “That was the last time Pat Summitt ever coached soccer.”
He shared a first-time story of how his mother was relaxing on the beach years ago while Tyler and his father, R.B. Summitt, swam in the ocean. Someone yelled that a shark was in the water, and Pat Summitt bolted – right for the 5-foot shark. She broke her ankle in the process, but her family was safe.
Tyler also shared how much pain his mother endured in 2005 when her father, Richard Head, died. Her divorce from R.B. Summitt in 2008 after 27 years of marriage also was difficult. The pain from her rheumatoid arthritis, which Pat Summitt hid publicly for years, took a tremendous physical toll.
“A lot of people did not see that,” Tyler Summitt said. “We were her motivation. She had a heart for others. She was the strongest person I’ve ever known.”
Former Lady Vol Shelley Sexton Collier, who was on Pat Summitt’s first national title team in 1987, shared the head coach’s love of strong coffee with hazelnut cream and honey – and running.
Summitt would sometimes run with the team, though not after a brutal loss to Texas when she learned that then Longhorns coach Jody Conradt – who was in attendance – had her players train as sprinters, too. After a two-hour practice, the Lady Vols ran seven 400-meter sprints.
Collier also learned how to be a point guard in Summitt’s system. Collier had a tendency to get down on herself, and Summitt put a stop to that attitude.
“You need to be so busy encouraging them that you don’t have time to think about yourself,” Collier said.
Catchings was an eighth-grader when she was channel flipping one day and came across a Tennessee game – and the blue-eyed stare of Summitt.
“I hope I get good enough to play for this lady,” Catchings thought then.
Catchings, an All-American in high school and college, certainly did. She was on the 1998 national title team at Tennessee but a WNBA title had eluded her until 2012.
Summitt was in attendance in Indianapolis when the Indiana Fever won the championship, and a photo of Catchings and her former head coach wrapped in a hug was widely circulated on social media.
“The hug that I gave her I will never forget,” said Catchings, who noted it was as if everyone else in the room had disappeared.
When Summitt had called Catchings in 2011 to tell her that she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, she comforted her former player.
“She said, ‘Catch, don’t be scared. I am going to fight like no other,’ ” Catchings said.
DeMoss saluted everyone in attendance and pointed out that even some officials had come to the celebration. DeMoss, who was devastated by Summitt’s illness and death, engaged the crowd with funny stories, but she also noted: “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do – speak about Pat in the past tense.”
Summitt’s humility and humbleness have been well-documented, but DeMoss pointed out that traveling with Summitt meant being trampled and boxed out as fans scurried to reach the head coach. She shared the story of a woman asking if she was Summitt’s assistant coach, and DeMoss was flattered until the woman handed her a piece of paper and a pen and asked her to get Summitt’s autograph.
DeMoss’ favorite story is about a trip to a restaurant in Florida in which diners at one table kept looking at Summitt. It was after the 1998 Sports Illustrated cover and publication of Summitt’s first book – “They do read occasionally down in Florida,” DeMoss said to much laughter – and Summitt wondered if they recognized her. DeMoss assured Summitt that they did.
When Summitt walked by the table, one of the diners said, “You look so familiar to us,” DeMoss said. “This lady said, ‘Don’t you work at Ace Hardware?’ That is a true story. And I am so glad I was there to hear it.”
Warlick shared a pseudonym for Summitt – the now-infamous Sandra Lee Fields. That was the name Summitt used when she was pulled over for speeding and didn’t want her father to find out.
“She was smarter than current and former Lady Vols,” Warlick said. “Number one, she didn’t use her real name. Number two, she didn’t put it on social media.”
A car ride with Summitt was an adventure – “You looked out the side, and you just prayed,” Warlick said – because the head coach considered 80 mph to be slow, used the rearview mirror as a personal accessory, talked on the phone and steered with her knees.
“Pat got pulled over a lot,” Warlick said. “She always had a plan.”
Summitt would put her purse in the trunk so that when an officer asked for her driver’s license, she had to get out of the car and open the trunk, which was filled with basketballs that “just so happened to be signed by Pat Summitt," Warlick said.
The officer would ask for a basketball and then just tell the coach to slow down.
The program ended with performances of “Surely the Presence” and “I’ll Fly Away” by singer Con Hunley between a prayer and a benediction by John Wood, senior pastor of Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church.
Those in attendance included a who’s who in every sector of public service and coaching from Gov. Bill Haslam to Fulmer, the former Vols football coach who won a national title in 1998. Former Tennessee women’s athletic directors Joan Cronan and Gloria Ray also were in the arena.
Inclement weather hindered some coaches from attending as flights were delayed, especially coming into Knoxville. Sheets of rain and bolts of lightning surrounded the arena about two hours before the 7 p.m. service. Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw and her entire staff arrived late and took their seats in the WBCA section, as did Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer. Every SEC school had a presence at the event. Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer also was present, along with dozens of other coaches.
The former Lady Vols and their families attended in such high numbers that extra chairs were placed in their section right before the service began. Every decade of Summitt’s 38-year coaching career had multiple representatives. Nearly every member of the 2007 and 2008 national title teams was in attendance, including Candace Parker, Nicky Anosike, Shannon Bobbitt, Sidney Spencer, Alberta Auguste, Alexis Hornbuckle and Vicki Baugh.
“If you were recruited by Pat and her staff, it was a casting call to greatness,” said Manning, who drew tremendous applause when he said Summitt "gave new depth and dimension to the meaning of the word Lady."
Despite the 1,098 wins and eight national championships, the celebration service underscored that Summitt’s achievements and legacy can’t be confined to a basketball court. The tributes to Summitt that have poured in over the past month often didn’t even mention basketball. The stories were about how Summitt made a fan feel special or went out her way to help someone.
“Her heart is as big as this arena,” DeMoss said.
Knoxville Pipes and Drums played “Amazing Grace” to open and conclude the celebration.
“Two words that describe her so well – amazing and grace,” Roberts said. “She’s in our midst.”
Video clip from the University of Tennessee