Legendary college basketball coach Pat Summitt died today at the age of 64 after battling Alzheimer's disease for years.
In her 38-year career, Summitt molded a dynasty at the University of Tennessee, leading the Lady Volunteers to eight national championships. She holds the record for most wins — 1,098 — by any NCAA Division I basketball coach, man or woman.
Summitt reached the Final Four 18 times, and even achieved perfection during the 1997-1998 season with a 39-0 record. The WBNA’s Tamika Catchings played for Summitt at the University of Tennessee from 1997 to 2001. Back in 2011, Catchings told The Takeaway that the inspiring coach drew her in at a young age.
“The first time I saw Pat coaching I was a seventh grader,” Catchings said. “I just happened to be flipping through the channels. I remember on the screen, it was her eyes — you could see the determination and the passion and the love — it’s all the things you would want in a great coach. For me, it was like, ‘Man, I want to play for this woman.’”
Summitt was known for her stern lessons, grueling practices and tough regimens on and off the court, which helped shaped the Lady Vols into a powerhouse in college sports.
In her own career, Summitt played for the University of Tennessee at Martin, and became the team’s assistant coach when she graduated from the school in 1974. She played on the 1976 Olympic basketball team, and eight years later, she coached the US Women's Olympic team to its first gold medal.
But one of Summitt's toughest battles was with early onset Alzheimer’s, which forced her to retire at the age of 59. She opened up about her diagnosis back in 2011.
“I just felt something was different, and you know, at the time, I didn’t know what I was dealing with,” she said. “Until I went to the Mayo Clinic I couldn’t be for sure, but I can remember, you know, trying to coach and trying to figure out schemes and whatever, and it just wasn’t coming to me. ... I think it probably caused me to second guess.”
In 2012, Summitt was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Today in a statement, President Barack Obama called her “an inspiring fighter.”
“Even after Alzheimer’s started to soften her memory, and she began a public and brave fight against that terrible disease, Pat had the grace and perspective to remind us that ‘God doesn’t take things away to be cruel. ... He takes things away to lighten us. He takes things away so we can fly,’” Obama said.
Long before she died, Summitt lost her memories of the precious victories and championship moments she secured over the course of her long career. But they can never be lost in the minds of those she touched, as a winner, as a coach, and as a mentor to two generations women.