There will never be anyone like Tennessee legend Pat Summitt

June 30, 2016, 6:50 AM

— -- The lanky Tennessee farm girl they nicknamed "Bone" grew to heights that no one could have anticipated. She traveled the world, became a kind of surrogate mom to hundreds of daughters and helped fundamentally change collegiate athletics.

She was born on Flag Day, June 14, 1952, and personified the American dream. Like most iconic figures, she inspired an almost mythical kind of devotion. But how could someone be so larger-than-life magnificent and yet so humbly warm and real?

That was the essence of Pat Summitt, the longtime Tennessee women's basketball coach who died Tuesday morning at age 64, nearly five years after making public her diagnosis of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.

To say there will never be anyone else like Summitt is not hyperbole. On the contrary, it seems inadequate. She won eight NCAA titles and went 1,098-208 in 38 seasons as coach at Tennessee. She was one of the most accomplished and influential figures in the history of women's sports, but also was universally respected and beloved.

"No matter who needs her -- from the last person on the bench to a manager to whoever -- she knew everybody by name and treated them as if they were her own," said three-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker, the star on Tennessee's 2007 and '08 national championship teams.

"She's made a huge impact on women's basketball. And she would be more excited and more proud in making an impact on an individual. Whenever I was going through things at Tennessee, she would open her door, and I'd come in and sit down."

Parker left her Los Angeles Sparks team after a victory in Minnesota on Friday to fly to Knoxville, Tennessee, to see Summitt once more.

"I've coached several Tennessee players, and they keep her in such high regard after they've left," Sparks coach Brian Agler said. "And I know it's not like she was there just patting them on the back the whole way. She challenged them to be great people and great players, and they have so much respect for her.

"I think she brought the women's college game from the back page to the front page. The Tennessee program, they were really the foundation that the modern era of women's basketball was built on."

Summitt took the Tennessee job at age 22 in 1974, when women's college athletics were in their infancy. It was just two years after Title IX had been passed, and a significant door to greater opportunities for girls and young women had been cracked open a little.

No one successfully pushed harder to fling open the door than the native Tennessean known as Pat Head when she started coaching. Whatever obstacles chauvinism and sexism presented, they weren't big enough to stop her.

In fact, they were no match for someone who had been strengthened since early childhood by the exhausting toil of caring for crops and livestock under the strict eye of her father, Richard Head, who demanded nothing more than everything she could possibly give.

"She taught me hard work. She's the hardest-working woman I've ever met in my life," Parker said. "She just didn't just say things; she did what she said. That was evident in the way she lived and the way she taught us as players."

At the 2008 Final Four, when Summitt won what turned out to be her last NCAA title, she retold a story that still seemed funny and fresh whenever she recounted it. As a 12-year-old, she had been left to finish off work in one of her family's hayfields by her father, who expected her to figure out how to get it done by day's end.

Which she did. And it never occurred to her to hope for a reprieve, even though it was a challenge she hadn't faced by herself before.

That's actually how Summitt met every challenge she encountered, including the most brutal: the despicable illness that prematurely ended her career, eroded her memories and autonomy, and then took her life.

When Summitt announced her diagnosis in 2011, there was shock followed by tears from every sector of the sports world.

Summitt didn't want anyone crying for her, though. She was an optimist but also a realist; she never sugarcoated anything to anyone, least of all herself. She comforted others who were in despair about her illness and told them she would fight it. She and her son, Tyler, established the Pat Summitt Foundation to raise funds for research.

Schools across the country established "We Back Pat" initiatives to contribute to the foundation. What her close friend, the late NC State coach Kay Yow, did to help in the battle against cancer -- which took Yow's life in 2009 -- Summitt did for Alzheimer's disease.

Bettye Giles was the women's athletics director at UT Martin when Summitt went to college and played basketball there from 1970 to '74. In the months after Summitt's diagnosis in 2011, Giles was still struggling with how such a thing could have happened to her friend.

"Pat has been such a big part of the growth of women's athletics," Giles said then, "that maybe it's part of the scheme of things for her to be involved in something major to be discovered with Alzheimer's. Maybe that's one of the greatest contributions she will ever make."

Alzheimer's seemed the harshest, most unimaginable, most unfair fate for Summitt, who had helped orchestrate so many happy memories for countless people.

But nothing can ever take away the history she made and the impact she had. Her time was far too short, but her legacy is endless.

"There's something about that woman," said Abby Conklin, who played on two NCAA championship teams for Summitt. "She gets things out of you that you never knew were in you."

Small-town beginnings

Summitt was born in Clarksville, Tennessee, one of five children of Richard and Hazel Head. She grew up in the Montgomery and Cheatham counties in Tennessee, her family relocating to the latter around the time she entered high school because it had a girls' basketball team.

Patricia Head was known as "Trish" or "Sis" to her family, but she was a bit too shy to correct people at UT Martin when they started calling her "Pat." So Pat she became.

But the shyness soon largely evaporated, and Pat became one of the most popular people on campus.

"Everyone liked her," Giles recalled. "She just was so much fun."

But she was also extremely driven. Summitt suffered a serious knee injury during her senior season of college and rehabbed that in 1974 after moving to Knoxville, taking the Tennessee coaching job, teaching classes there and also going to graduate school.

Summitt was able to stay active as a player, despite serious knee issues, through the 1976 Olympics, which were the first Summer Games to have women's basketball. Summitt and her U.S. teammates won a silver medal in Montreal. Then she was head coach for the 1984 team that won gold at the Los Angeles Games.

In all, 14 of Summitt's Tennessee players have been Olympians -- including Tamika Catchings, who will be on her fourth Olympic team later this summer in Rio de Janeiro.

"Once a Lady Vol, always a Lady Vol," is how Catchings described Summitt's motto. "No matter where I go, or who I talk to, when they ask what college I went to and I say 'University of Tennessee,' they always talk about Pat and the legacy."

In her early days of coaching, Summitt did what most women's coaches did then: pretty much everything. From driving a team van to washing uniforms to making sandwiches for trips.

The season before Summitt took over, Tennessee went 25-2 and finished third in the AIAW championships. So Summitt felt as if she had to meet high expectations. Tennessee became a consistent power under Summitt, but winning a national championship took a while for her. Tennessee had two AIAW runner-up finishes in 1980 and '81.

The NCAA assumed governance of women's athletics for the 1981-82 school year, and the Lady Vols made the first NCAA Women's Final Four in '82. They advanced to the NCAA title game for the first time in 1984, losing to Cheryl Miller and Southern Cal.

In 1987, Tennessee broke through for Summit's first NCAA title, beating rival Louisiana Tech in the final. It was Summitt's 13th season as coach.

"Our goal when we got there was to get that monkey off Pat's back and win a championship," said Shelley Sexton Collier, the point guard on the 1987 Lady Vols team. "We wanted to win it for her, but also for all those players who'd been before us."

Seven more NCAA titles would come, including three in a row from 1996 to '98, culminating with a 39-0 season in 1998. Chamique Holdsclaw was the star on those mid-'90s teams.

"Coach Summitt is a rare breed," Holdsclaw said. "Because I remember when my grandmother met her, she said, 'You're going to Tennessee.'"

Growing the women's game

Summitt always said her toughest loss on the court came in 1990, when Tennessee fell to Virginia in the Elite Eight. It prevented the Lady Vols from playing in the Final Four that they were hosting at Thompson-Boling Arena, and Summitt worried that the games would be sparsely attended by disappointed Tennessee fans.

She implored them to show up for the good of women's basketball, and they responded.

"People still came," said former Stanford player Jennifer Azzi, whose Cardinal won the NCAA title that year. "The place was still packed."

Summitt got her "revenge" a year later, when Tennessee beat Virginia in overtime in the national championship game. But it was the team the Cavaliers had defeated in that 1991 Final Four that would become Tennessee's ultimate rival: UConn.

Summitt had a reputation for being open to playing any team that elevated itself -- or was trying to -- in women's basketball.

"Pat has a hard time telling people no, and she does want to do what's best for the game," longtime Tennessee assistant Mickie DeMoss explained in 2011. "If she thinks it's going to promote the sport, that superseded anything else."

Summitt agreed to a January game at UConn in 1995 that was broadcast on ESPN on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The teams were ranked 1-2, and The Associated Press delayed its poll voting a day to account for the result of the game. UConn won and became the top-ranked team, then defeated Tennessee again three months later in the national championship game.

The teams would meet again in the national semifinals the next season, and Tennessee would win this one on the way to a run of three NCAA titles in a row. In all, the Lady Vols and Huskies met 22 times, with UConn winning 13.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma preferred sarcastic sparring in pregame preparation for Tennessee, which was the opposite of Summitt's approach. Their relationship soured over time, and Summitt canceled the series after the 2007 meeting, which the Lady Vols won on their way to the national championship that year.

But like every other coach, Auriemma was devastated to hear of Summitt's illness. The two shared a hug at the 2012 Final Four in Denver. Auriemma, now with 11 national championships, has donated thousands of dollars to the Pat Summitt Foundation.

When Auriemma's Huskies won their eighth NCAA title in 2013 to tie Summitt, he brushed off any comparisons to men's basketball coaching greats.

"The only person I compare myself to is Pat Summitt," Auriemma said then. "And to be in that spot with her means a lot to me."

What a story to tell

Summitt chronicled her history and gave her perspective on coaching in three books co-authored with Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins: "Reach for the Summit," "Raise the Roof" and "Sum It Up."

In "Pat XO," the espnW Nine for IX documentary released in 2013, dozens of family members, friends, players, coaches, opponents and admirers of Summitt recounted their memories in personal videos. Those were then woven together with footage of Summitt's career for a nuanced look at a woman whose influence seems incalculable.

Tennessee went to the Final Four 22 times under Summitt, 18 of those in the NCAA era. Official SEC play began for women's basketball in 1980, and Summitt won or shared the league's regular-season title 16 times, and also took the SEC tournament crown 16 times.

Summitt coached 21 players who were named WBCA All-Americans, including two four-timers for that honor, Holdsclaw and Catchings. Summitt was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 2000. Her vast coaching tree includes former Tennessee All-American Holly Warlick, who is now head of the Lady Vols program.

"Pat has said this forever: She wants women to be self-sufficient," Warlick said. "It's our job to get them to that point."

Summitt faced some personal hard times, including her divorce from husband R.B. Summitt in 2007. But for the most part, her nearly four decades at Tennessee seemed charmed with great fortune that she worked so hard to secure.

But the announcement of her illness on Aug. 23, 2011, meant that her time as head coach was nearing an unexpected end. In her final season, 2011-12, the Lady Vols won the SEC tournament before a big crowd in Nashville, Tennessee, but then fell in the Elite Eight to eventual national champion Baylor.

The Lady Bears' Kim Mulkey, who was one of countless Summitt admirers and had played for her with USA Basketball, readily acknowledged she wished she had not been the last coach to face Summitt. But Mulkey praised Summitt after their regional final game as being one of the most important figures in college sports.

Summitt moved to a coaching emeritus position in April 2012. Then a month later, she was honored at the White House with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor any civilian can receive in the United States. Summitt had been to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. many times previously when she was honored with her Tennessee championship teams.

President Barack Obama said that because of people like Summitt, his own daughters, Malia and Sasha, "are standing up straight, diving after loose balls, feeling confident and strong."

Indeed, if there was one lifelong standout in the many complimentary adjectives that have been used to describe Summitt, it's likely that "strong" might be it. She faced her last and most merciless opponent with that same kind of iron-will strength. These past few years, especially, have been heartbreaking for those who love Summitt in the long-goodbye way that Alzheimer's forces people to endure.

But that's definitely not what the Pat Head Summitt who became a giant would want anyone to be thinking about now. She'd tell them to continue to work to be their best. To reach beyond whatever they thought was their limit. To fight diseases like Alzheimer's until they are defeated.

She'd assure them that she will, in fact, always be with them. For anyone whose life she intersected with, even briefly, there is a deep gratitude mixed in with the sorrow now.

We were all touched by someone genuinely and profoundly amazing.