My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Pat Summitt’s new biography is fascinating to read. I first started gaining respect and admiration for the former Lady Vol coach in 1985 when I first started attending the University of Tennessee. By then, she had already established a first class women’s basketball program, building it from virtually nothing. I was a happy student there when she won her first national championship and as most people know, she went on to win more basketball games than any other men’s or women’s coach ever — 1098, to go with 8 national championships, second only to UCLA’s John Wooden. She did this over a 38 year period during which time every one of the hundreds of young women who played for her graduated — a 100% graduation rate over 38 years. That might be the most impressive record of all.
Pat Head Summitt was born and raised in a small Tennessee town on a farm, raised by a stern, strict father who told he her loved her just once in her entire lifetime — after she had won a national championship at age 43. She had three brothers and had to work her butt off on the farm, in school, and in basketball. She was an Olympic silver medalist in 1976 (the Russians had a 7’2″ center that 5’11” Pat had to guard and the Russians won). She coached the 1984 women’s team to the gold medal. Her book gives detailed accounts of her interactions with many players, some famous, others less so. It was fascinating to gain some locker room insights into the actions of these young women I’ve watched on the court over the past 25+ years. She also talks about other coaches, almost all of them in glowing terms. It’s interesting to see how she treats UConn’s “evil” coach, Geno A. She’s generally good to him, but she does address her breaking off the seasonal rivalry between UConn and UT in some detail (not enough though), but insists that their relationship has been repaired.
Naturally, nearly everyone knows she was diagnosed with early onset dementia, leading to Alzheimer’s, a couple of years ago. I remember exactly where I was when I heard that announcement. I was in my car waiting for my then-girlfriend, now-wife in downtown Chattanooga. When I heard, I just started bawling, as did probably everyone in the state of Tennessee. It’s a real tragedy to hit someone so young and so prominent and who has impacted so many people in so many wonderful ways. She doesn’t shy away from addressing this topic in her book; indeed, it’s central to the book’s theme. She insists that you can still live a somewhat productive life with dementia and is determined to do so for as long as possible. To help her, she has her son Tyler, a young man who I watched grow up over the years. Now’s he’s an assistant coach with Marquette’s women’s team. He’s been a real help to Pat and it’s obvious she’s grateful. While she can’t remember a lot of things anymore, like numbers and plays, it’s obvious she remembers her players and coaches — all of them — and how much of an impact they made on her and her life. It was touching to read of her relationships with many of them. Of course she was known for being stern (like her father), and for her infamous death stare, but she did love the girls in her own way and wanted them to be the best they could be. It’s also a testament to Pat’s success that 74 of her former players went into coaching. If that’s not success, I don’t know what is!
As sad as I am about Pat’s condition and her future, this book was a joy to read and it was actually pretty inspirational. I recommend it for any Tennessee fan, any women’s basketball fan, any sports fan, actually just about everybody. I think everyone can draw something from this book. I loved reading it and even though it’s over 400 pages, I tore through it in a day and a half. Strongly recommended.