Jeff Goldberg was the UConn women’s basketball writer for the Hartford Courant from 2001 to 2006 and is the author of Unrivaled: UConn, Tennessee, and the Twelve Years that Transcended Women’s Basketball (Nebraska, 2015) and Bird at the Buzzer: UConn, Notre Dame, and a Women’s Basketball Classic (Nebraska, 2011).
Pat Summitt wasn’t just the winningest coach in the history of women’s basketball. Pat Summitt was women’s basketball.
There is simply no way to over-estimate the impact Summitt had on the game as coach of the University of Tennessee. Summitt, who died Tuesday at age of sixty-four, not only won the most games as a coach—men or women—in NCAA history, her stewardship of the Lady Vols’ program catapulted the sport of women’s basketball into the national sports consciousness.
That the year of Summitt’s death is also being celebrated for the 20th anniversary of the WNBA is perhaps the greatest testament to her legacy as the leading trailblazer for the women’s game.
Summitt, who stepped down as Tennessee’s head coach after thirty-eight seasons in 2012 because of early onset Alzheimers disease, amassed 1,089 victories. Summitt, who also coached the United States to a Gold medal at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, created the first great dynasty in the women’s college game, leading Tennessee to three of its eight national championships in the late 1980s and early 90s, as the sport began to come of age in the ESPN era.
Tennessee would then become the first program in women’s history to win three straight titles, from 1996-98, including a 39-0 season in 1997-98.
Summitt’s mark of eight titles has since been surpassed by University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, whose program now holds eleven championships, having won the past four. But even UConn’s great success cannot be fully articulated without acknowledging Tennessee and Summitt’s role.
It was, of course, the iconic rivalry between Summitt’s Lady Vols and Auriemma’s Huskies from 1995-07 that forever changed women’s basketball, earning the sport a seat at the head table of sports media coverage and fan interest, making household names of such stars as Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Chamique Holdsclaw, and Candace Parker.
Even those who did not follow women’s basketball knew UConn-Tennessee, much the way fans knew Celtics-Lakers and Red Sox-Yankees. The clash of personalities between Summitt and Auriemma stoked the fire of public interest in their twenty-two meetings, including four in the national championship game, even as that bitter personal feud led to Summitt ending the rivalry in the summer of 2007.
But as Summitt ended the rivalry, she was also singularly responsible for creating it. In the summer of 1994, ESPN sought to create a made-for-TV women’s basketball event for the upcoming season, pitting two national contenders on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 16, 1995, for an afternoon match up.
UConn had already agreed to be one of the teams, but ESPN’s director of women’s programming, Carol Stiff, struggled to line up an opponent, as prominent teams such as defending champion North Carolina turned down the offer, not wishing to play UConn on its home floor.
Then Stiff called Summitt, who had long earned her reputation for not fearing putting her Tennessee team up against any opponent in any setting.
“I’ll do it,” Summitt told Stiff. “For the good of the game.”
UConn, ranked second, beat No. 1 Tennessee that January afternoon, and the sport was never the same.
My favorite personal memory of Pat Summitt was from 2004. The rivalry between UConn and Tennessee was at its most intense stage—only a year removed from Auriemma famously calling Tennessee the “Evil Empire” which drew a sharp rebuke from Summitt. Entering the 2004 NCAA Tournament, UConn had beaten Tennessee in five straight meetings—the longest winning streak either program enjoyed during the rivalry—and would soon make it six in the National Championship game in New Orleans, UConn’s third title in a row, thanks largely because of Diana Taurasi’s brilliant play.
As the UConn women’s basketball beat writer for the Hartford Courant, I was writing a piece in March declaring Taurasi the greatest women’s player in NCAA history. I called Coach Summitt to get her thoughts about Taurasi, who had made torturing the Lady Vols on the court a personal hobby.
Given all the hard feelings between the programs at the time, I wasn’t sure what to expect as the interview began. Certainly one of her own players, Chamique Holdsclaw, was worthy of such a declaration. I would not have faulted Summitt for being dismissive of questions that could have been viewed in partisan terms.
What I got was both insightful and gracious. Coach Summitt was effusive in lavishing praise on Taurasi. She could not have been more charming, patient and generous with this Connecticut reporter. It spoke directly to her class and charm, which she possessed in same quantities as her competitiveness, work ethic, and uncompromising demand for excellence.
It also spoke to her perspective about the game she helped grow. Pat Summitt was, indeed, good for the game.