Imagine the indignity: You play 40 minutes to a standstill and, in the sacred compact of sports, now face overtime—yet because your game is a prelim to a men’s game, you’re forced to play OT with a running clock lest the tip-off to the main event be delayed. That’s what happened to Pat Summitt’s Tennessee Lady Vols at LSU in 1979. It was only one of countless affronts that Summitt, who has died at 64 of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, endured over a career in which she nonetheless won eight NCAA titles and a record 1,098 games and changed the way Americans regard women’s sports. Wash the uniforms. Drive the van. Make do. Make history.
It may be unworthy to evaluate Summitt by using a man as a point of reference, after all she did to stiffen the spine of women’s sports so they might stand on their own. But as a cultural figure and coach without peer, she was to Tennessee what Bear Bryant was to Alabama: feared, revered, iconic. No disrespect intended—and Summitt herself never skimped on propriety, even as she put a padded shoulder to closed doors as if it were a battering ram—but consider for a moment the chorus line of men who served alongside her in Knoxville over 38 years: In football, Bill Battle, Johnny Majors, Phillip Fulmer, Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley; In men’s basketball, Ray Mears, Don DeVoe, Wade Houston, Kevin O’Neill, Jerry Green, Buzz Peterson, Bruce Pearl and Cuonzo Martin. Some are remembered as promoters, others for their integrity, while a few collected a brace of winning seasons and one even a national title. But none, if honest with himself, would claim to have reliably delivered on all counts, certainly not at the standard she did. How’s this for a deal? Come play four years for me, and you’ll get your degree and reach at least one Final Four.