Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in Division I college basketball history, died Tuesday from complications from an early onset Alzheimer’s-type dementia at a senior living home in Knoxville, Tennessee, her son confirmed. She was 64.
In 2011, after doctors diagnosed Summitt with the disease, she continued to coach the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers through the 2011-12 season before stepping down as head coach as longtime assistant Holly Warlick took the helm. By the time she retired, Summitt concluded a storied 38-year career with 1,098 wins, the most in NCAA women’s or men’s basketball history.
Since the diagnosis, “my mother has battled her toughest opponent, early onset dementia, ‘Alzheimer’s Type,’ and she did so with bravely fierce determination just as she did with every opponent she ever faced,” Pat’s son Tyler Summitt said in a statement released Tuesday morning. “Even though it’s incredibly difficult to come to terms that she is no longer with us, we can all find peace in knowing she no longer carries the heavy burden of this disease,” he wrote.
Shortly after graduating from the University of Tennessee at Martin, Summitt was hired at 22 years old in 1974 to coach the Lady Vols. Over the course of her career, she would guide the team to eight NCAA national championships.
After recovering from a torn ACL, Summitt acted as member and co-captain of the U.S. women’s basketball team at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, the first time women’s basketball was included on the Olympic program. The team won a silver medal. Summitt returned to the Olympic stage in 1984 when she coached the U.S. women’s team to its first gold medal.
Summitt was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999. A year later, she was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Then, in 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Summitt with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Video by the White House
According to a statement from the Pat Summitt Foundation, amid all the accolades and stats, one number stood out for Summitt: 161.
“This is the number of Lady Vols who contributed to the 1,098 wins over the span of her illustrious career. To these 161 student-athletes she was more than a coach – she was a friend, mentor and a loving mother,” the statement read.
Warlick, the current head coach for the Lady Vols, said on Twitter that she and Summitt “shared a very special, special BOND that will NEVER be broken.”
Well coach, you did it your way. You touched thousands of people across this world. You changed… https://t.co/qz45ycDn8s
— Cierra Burdick (@C_Burdick11) June 28, 2016
Patricia Sue Head was born on June 14, 1952, in Clarksville, Tennessee, growing up on a farm with four other children. Her father, Richard Head, was a strict disciplinarian, whose “peculiar combination of love and discipline was hard to take, but in the end I was grateful for it,” Summitt said in her 1998 book, “Reach for the Summitt.”
In the book, Summitt said her father didn’t hug her for the first time until she was 43 years old, when the Lady Vols won their fourth NCAA national championship in 1996. Summitt publicly described how she tirelessly fought for his approval.
“A few days later, he said grudgingly, ‘Now I don’t want to hear any more about how I never hug you or tell you how proud I am.’ That was his way of telling me he was proud,” Summitt wrote.
Despite her father’s intensity, Summitt said he supported her desire to play basketball, including building a basketball court on top of a hayloft for her and siblings to play. Summitt said in “Reach” that the “best, most valuable thing my father gave me was an equal opportunity.”
“Nobody in the family seemed to regard me as a girl when it came to work or playing basketball. I fought hard and played hard, and I was expected to hold my own with my brothers, whether we were in the fields or in the hayloft,” Summitt wrote.
Summitt began coaching the Lady Vols a couple of years after Title IX, a federal civil rights law that prohibited discrimination in education based on gender, was passed in 1972. Summitt’s accomplishments brought attention to women’s basketball at a time when opportunities expanded for college sports programs for women in the nation.
“Long before the Lady Vols had their own basketball-only practice facility and she was making a seven-figure salary, Summitt made just $8,900 per year and fought with physical education classes for practice space in a multiuse gymnasium,” ESPN reported.
“As I got older, I understood that women had to fight for respect in more ways than one,” Summitt wrote in “Reach.” “Looking back on it, I don’t think anyone in the family worked as hard as my mother or got less credit for it,” she said.
For Summitt, sports offered a “vital avenue to self-worth for women,” adding that the “explosion” in female athletic participation seen in the past few decades was important for society as a whole.
“There was actually a time when women were forbidden to run marathons for fear we’d damage our ovaries. Basketball for women was stationary to make sure we didn’t swoon,” Summitt wrote. “But unfettered play affords the experience of excellence, both physically and mentally. It is too critical for personal development to deny it to half the population.”
Cierra Burdick, a former Lady Vol player, said on Instagram that Summitt “touched thousands of people across this world.”
“You changed the game and paved the way for women’s sports. You brought women from all different backgrounds together to create an unbreakable family. You taught us how to be great on the court, but even more importantly, off of it. You showed us what true love was and I am forever grateful for that. Thank you, coach,” she said.
Summitt is survived by her son, Tyler, who is the former women’s coach at Louisiana Tech; her mother, Hazel Albright Head; her sister, Linda Atteberry; and her brothers, Kenneth, Tommy and Charles Head.