Pat Summitt Elevated a Sport the Way No Individual in History Did


Tennessee Lady Vols Coach Pat Summitt was a greater champion for women’s basketball than any individual ever was for any sport.

Eight national championships, 16 SEC Tournament and Regular Season Championships, and 1,098 wins alone are enough to put legendary head coach Pat Summitt in the conversation for greatest champion ever.

But in addition to being one of the greatest champions on the court, Summitt, who died Tuesday morning at age 64, was also the greatest champion for an institution ever.

We know about how her winning helped to elevate women’s basketball. Her development of cool players that helped market the sport such as Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings was huge.

Still, anybody can elevate a sport by winning a lot as well.

What Summitt did was an act of selflessness beyond anything an individual achieving her level of greatness in a sport could have done.

Keep in mind she was 22 when she took over the Lady Vols program. It would be another nearly 10 years before they competed in the NCAA. And as she was winning, she took more hits in public than anybody fighting for women’s basketball.

Summitt fought for her program to have the same quality locker rooms as the men’s program. She constantly put herself in the public demanding more national exposure for the Lady Vols.

And the same way she got exactly what she demanded out of her players with her coaching skills, she got what she demanded from television networks.

More national exposure for women’s basketball followed, and Summitt even took a great risk by allowing her team coming off of a national championship to be featured in an HBO documentary in 1996-1997. To many, that would come across as self-promotion. But the genius of Summitt’s decision was that it would promote the entertainment value of women’s basketball even further.

It’s also due in no smart to Summitt that women’s basketball got popular enough for the WNBA to start in 1997.

And by the mid-1990s, Summitt’s Lady Vols had easily become the most popular show on the court in Knoxville, surpassing the men by a long shot. That was obviously a rare feat.

But the most selfless act Summitt took came in coaching decisions. Summitt was offered the head coaching job of the men’s basketball program at least twice.

Had she taken the job, she could have broken major barriers as a women coaching men. Her profile would have been elevated, and she would have been hailed as a trail blazer. But for Summitt, staying in women’s basketball was more important.

She knew it was more important to promote opportunities for female athletes across the globe than to elevate her own status. And that was about as selfless of an act as she could have made

Of course, she had a fun side too, most notably when she dressed up as a cheerleader and sang Rocky Top when the Vols beat Florida in 2007.

As such, nobody has ever been a greater ambassador for a sport than Pat Summitt was for women’s basketball. When you look at the rising popularity of other sports, you can point to a collection of things that helped it grow.

When you look at women’s basketball, you need to look no further than Summitt herself. The sacrifices she made for the sport are unmatched.

And while she may have succumbed to the awful illness of dementia, her advocacy in that fight will also have a lasting impact.

This is where Summitt is the greatest champion. Not with the rings or the wins, but with her unique ability to make sure the things she is fighting for become the forefront of issues for everybody.