Man, 2016 has turned into one sorry year for celebrity deaths.
First, it claimed Phife Dawg from my favorite rap group, “A Tribe Called Quest”. Then sadly, it claimed Prince. Shortly thereafter, Muhammad Ali. Then Gordie Howe.
And if 2016 wasn’t through taking our celebrities, it claimed someone who was a pioneer in women’s sports.
I could go on and share the numbers on Summitt’s career. The 18 Final Fours. The eight national championships. In fact, here are some more:
- Most seasons coached in NCAA/AIAW play without a losing record (38, lost more than 9 games in a season only 7 times and more than 10 games in a season only twice)
- Most consecutive NCAA/AIAW postseason appearances (38, never missed a tournament)
- Most number 1 seeds in NCAA Division I tournament history (21)
- Most wins as an NCAA/AIAW Division I basketball head coach (1,098; in second place is Mike Krzyzewski with 1,040 wins)
- Most wins in NCAA tournament history (112)
- Most NCAA Final Four appearances (18, six more than John Wooden, who holds the men’s records)
- Most NCAA/AIAW Championship game appearances (15)
- Most 20-win seasons in NCAA/AIAW play (36, all consecutive seasons)
- 16-time SEC Champions (1980, 1985, 1990, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2010, 2011)
- 16-time SEC Tournament Champions (1980, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012)
- 8-time SEC Coach of the Year (1983, 1995, 1998, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2011)
- 7-time NCAA Coach of the Year (1983, 1987, 1989, 1994, 1995, 1998, 2004)
As gaudy and awesome as those numbers are, this is the fact that impressed me the most. Every Lady Vol player who completed her eligibility at Tennessee under Summitt graduated with a degree.
All of those accomplishments prove that when I think about women’s sports in this country, the first name that pops in my head is Summitt’s. She taught us all that you can be a woman, a wife, a mother, and still kick ass and take names – and do so with class and dignity.
Summitt came along during a time when this great country, frankly, didn’t give a damn about women’s sports. Title IX was in its infancy, and no one had a clue on how big women’s sports would become in this nation.
It’s been documented how hard of a road it was for Summitt in her early days at Tennessee. In addition to coaching the women’s team, she drove the team van (and at times would sleep in opposing teams’ gyms on road trips), washed uniforms, and made sandwiches for trips. And she did it all while earning a paltry salary at the time ($250 per month).
Yet through it all, Summitt NEVER had a losing season. She was the first person to create a brand in women’s college basketball. Remarkable.
And Summitt’s success at Tennessee trickled down into women’s basketball as a whole.
The Women’s Final Four is now a big event. The regular season has higher visibility due to increased popularity and television partners (ESPN, CBS, and Fox Sports).
Summitt paved the way for other women’s college programs to come onto the scene during and become successful.
UConn under Geno Auriemma has dominated women’s college basketball for several years and is not slowing down. Baylor has experienced success, as did Notre Dame, Duke, Texas, Stanford, Maryland, and now South Carolina.
But despite Auriemma’s dominance (and he is not slowing down anytime soon), Summitt will ALWAYS be the face of women’s college basketball.
I would also argue that there would be no WNBA without Summitt. The number of stars she coached, and their popularity (Tamika Catchings, Chamique Holdsclaw, EPSN’s Kara Lawson, and Candace Parker just to name a few), were among those that made it possible for a women’s professional league to exist in the United States.
So not only did Summitt create Tennessee women’s basketball, she is also the most important person in women’s sports.
It is too bad that Alzheimer’s disease robbed us all of such an icon.