32 - The Legacy of Pat Head Summitt

“I stood under another soft, dense rain of confetti,” she wrote. “Had I known I’d never see another Final Four as a competitor, I might have taken more careful note of my thoughts. All I remember is feeling blaze-eyed with euphoria, and yet snow-blinded by all the colorful paper that drifted around me. Those fluttering bits of brightness seemed so reflective of the countless inspired moments our players had given me, a great torrent of victories. More than three decades of potent emotions seemed to be cascading down on my head all at once. Up on the rim of the arena, a huge rainbow-lit LED display read, ‘And then there was Tennessee,’” Pat Head Summit.

In Her Early Life

Pat Head Summitt was born June 14, 1952 in Clarksville, Tennessee. Once she was ready to start high school, her family moved to nearby Henrietta, so she could play basketball. The small town of Clarksville did not yet have a girls team, and her willingness to move schools to play basketball was just a small glimpse at her passion and dedication that would evolve over the course of her life.

From there, Pat went to the University of Tennessee at Martin where she was initiated into the Xi Zeta Chapter of Chi Omega in 1971. There she won All-American honors, playing for UT–Martin’s first women’s basketball coach, Nadine Gearin. In 1970, with the passage of Title IX still two years away, there were no athletic scholarships for women. Each of Pat’s brothers had received athletic scholarships, so Pat’s parents made up for this disparity by paying her way to college so she would have the same chance to follow her dreams as her brothers.

She later co-captained the United States women’s national basketball team as a player at the inaugural women’s tournament in the 1976 Summer Olympics, winning the silver medal. Eight years later in 1984, she coached the U.S. women’s team to an Olympic gold medal, becoming the first U.S. Olympian to both win a basketball medal and coach a medal-winning team.

Pat Head Summitt featured in The Eleusis

Her Career

Pat won 16 Southeastern Conference regular season titles with the Lady Vols, as well as 16 tournament titles. Summitt’s Lady Vols made an appearance in every NCAA Tournament from 1982 until her retirement, advanced to the Sweet 16 every year except 2009, and appeared 18 times in the Final Four. When Pat made her 13th trip to the Final Four as a coach in 2002, she surpassed John Wooden as the NCAA coach with the most trips to the Final Four. Pat was a seven-time SEC Coach of the year and a seven-time NCAA Coach of the year. She won eight national titles, including three consecutively from 1996 to 1998.

Pat was notorious for scheduling tough opponents for her team to play in the regular season, in order to prepare them for the demanding pace of post-season. In her years of coaching, her teams played top ten ranked teams over 250 times.

Pat Head Summitt

Pat coached her team to the title of NCAA Division Tournament champions eight times in her career, conquering the tournament in 1987, 1989, 1991, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2007, and 2008.

Pat and the 1996–97 championship team were the subject of an HBO documentary titled A Cinderella Season: The Lady Vols Fight Back. That year, the Lady Vols posted a 23–10 record heading into the NCAA tournament, with two losses to Louisiana Tech, setbacks against national powerhouses Georgia, Stanford, and UConn, and losses to SEC opponents Arkansas, Auburn, and LSU. However, Tennessee righted itself during the tournament, shocking previously undefeated UConn in the regional final, 91–81, before defeating Notre Dame and Old Dominion in the Final Four in Cincinnati.

In the 1997–98 season, her team went unbeaten, winning all 30 regular season games and 9 tournament games, earning Pat’s sixth championship. After the championship game, opposing Louisiana Tech head coach Leon Balmore proclaimed the Tennessee team to be the “best ever”, echoing a similar claim made by Old Dominion University Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman in 1998.

Pat’s eighth and final national championship, in 2008, came in a 64-48 victory against Stanford.

Pat Head Summit with her eight national championship trophies

Over the course of her career Pat gained many fans. One of the most notable being Former President Barack Obama. In 2012 he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, recognized alongside the Congressional Gold Medal, as the nation’s highest civilian award. Pat even made an appearance on a special Lady Vols edition Wheaties box. Kept safe under lock in key, the Chi Omega archives houses a special signed box of our own!

Special Lady Vols edition Wheaties box

Tyler Summitt, Pat’s only son, said, “She was more than a coach to so many – she was a hero and a mentor, especially to me, her family, her friends, her Tennessee Lady Volunteer staff, and the 161 Lady Vol student-athletes she coached during her 38-year tenure.”

Her Diagnosis and Later Life

In August 2011, Pat announced that she had been diagnosed three months earlier with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Despite the diagnosis, she completed the 2011–12 season with great help from her assistants, and ended her career winning an astonishing 84% of her games (1,098-208). At that time Pat had won more games than anyone in college basketball history, man or woman.

Until Coach Krzyzewski passed her record in 2018, Pat held onto that all-time winningest D-1 basketball coach title. Today Pat holds the record for second winningest D-1 basketball coach.

Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins – who wrote biographies with Pat and considered Pat her best friend – wrote that the coach almost punched the first doctor who told her she was beginning to experience dementia. When a second advised her to retire immediately, Pat said, “Do you know who you’re dealing with?” cited from USA Today.

In 2012, following her announcement of her diagnosis, Pat was awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY Awards Ceremony.

Throughout her life Pat wrote three books, all with co-author Sally Jenkins: Reach for the Summitt, which is part motivational and part biography; Raise the Roof, about the Lady Vols’ 1997–1998 undefeated and NCAA-championship winning season; and Sum It Up, covering her life and her experience being diagnosed and living with Alzheimer’s disease.

Pat remained involved with Chi Omega during her 40-plus years of membership, speaking at local and national events for Chi Omega and inspiring Sisters all over the country. She was awarded the Malinda Jolley Mortin Woman of Achievement Award at the 1988 Convention in St. Louis. Pat also spoke at the June 1995 Centennial celebration where a crowd of alumnae gathered in Memphis at the Peabody Hotel to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Chi Omega Founding.

Pat Head Summitt featured on the 1989 cover of The Eleusis after being award the Melinda Jolley Mortin Woman of Achievement Award

Pat had a close bond with the Xi Zeta/University of Tennessee – Martin Chapter throughout her life. Their house is dedicated to her, as is the staircase in the Pi/University of Tennessee Chapter House.

From left, Joellyn Sullivan, former S.T.B., Pat Summitt, & Lyn Harris, National Archivist, in 2011 at a gala hosted by Pi Chapter in Pat’s honor.

Pat Head Summitt joined the Omega Chapter in June of 2016, five years after being diagnosed with early onset dementia in the form of Alzheimer’s. Pat’s legacy lives on as a Sister that exemplified what it means to work earnestly and to be a woman of high purpose. In the college basketball world Pat forever remains a legendary coach, never having losing record in 38 seasons, and who revolutionized the caliber of collegiate basketball.

“Her unrelenting drive for excellence transformed the narrative and paved the way for the success of women’s sports. She will long be remembered as a woman of purpose – an inspiration for her own story as well as how she empowered others to be their best selves. A 1988 Chi Omega Malinda Jolley Mortin Woman of Achievement, her Sisters at University of Tennessee-Martin also fitting named their lodge in honor of Pat. Chi Omega Sisters join the chorus of all who admire Pat, celebrating her extraordinary life and contributions,” S.H. Shelley Potter.