By Thomas Sellers Jr.
Life starts to take shape around the age of 5 and 6.
It was about 1987 when I realized I lived in the state of Tennessee. It wasn’t New York, California or Florida. Around that time I just learned my home state was nicknamed the “Volunteer State.”
Besides that nugget, most of the things I had learned about Tennessee by the age of 5 was it was a poor, dusty Southern state inhabited by country folks.
So the first time I felt pride about Tennessee came in the spring of 1987. On March 29, I watched a group of girls wearing white and orange representing Tennessee celebrate their first National Championship in Austin, Texas. That day the Tennessee Lady Vols led by Pat Summitt won their first title with a 67-44 victory over Louisiana Tech.
Tennessee! My home state is good at something over all the other states in America. And the woman in the 80s business suit was carried off the court a champion. Over the next 25 years Summitt would add seven more National titles, numerous All-American players and her program’s graduation rate was 100 percent.
The Coach who won nearly 1,100 game while only dropping 208 decisions earned a spot in Tennessee’s fictional Mt. Rushmore. So when the news came down 5 years ago she was battling Alzheimer’s disease, every Lady Vols fan paused to realize even a living legend must face ultimate conclusion.
That end came last Tuesday morning on June 28 when Summitt passed away at the age of 64. The world lost the winningest coach in NCAA Division I basketball history. For us in the state of Tennessee, we said goodbye to our daughter.
As a child I identified Summitt as Tennessee’s first celebrity, after leading the Lady Vols to title in 1989 and 1991. Then after the magical run of three championships from 1996-98, Summitt became like part of my family.
Most people will point to her 1998 undefeated Lady Vol squad that went 39-0 as her crowning achievement. But for me the team that exemplifies Summitt’s heart, will and love of the game was the 1997 title team.
Those Lady Vols loss 10 games heading into the NCAA Tournament and nobody gave the No. 3 Midwest seed a chance. I learned that season you never count out Pat Summitt.
Not only did Tennessee win again but the Lady Vols did it in amazing fashion beating Old Dominion. Once again I was proud to be from Tennessee.
While winning 1,098 games, Summitt racked up several honors and championships. Tennessee won 16 Southeastern Conference regular season championships and 16 SEC tournament championships. Summitt was named SEC Coach of the Year eight times and took home the NCAA honor seven times. Summitt was honored with the Naismith Award for Coach of the 20th Century and the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award a civilian can win in the United States.
She coached 21 All-Americans with names like Tamika Catchings, Chamique Holdsclaw and Candace Parker winning the national Player of the Year. Parker led Summitt’s final two championship teams in 2007 and 2008.
Whether you were Parker, Kellie Jolly, Tonya Edwards or Michelle Marciniak, Summitt would hit you with her famous intense stare. She placed high standards on all the girls who entered her program.
She expected each player to sit in the first three rows of every one of their classes, with zero unexcused absences. She’d halt practices to ask players a simple, important question: “What have you done for your team today?”
Summitt was famous for her speeches at halftime and quotes of inspiration. One that stood out to me is, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Summitt’s final days on this earth proved how much she cared about her family, players, coaches, University and fellow Tennesseans. She was a true ambassador for the Volunteer State and the game of basketball.
She helped the growth of women’s athletics in general. She went from making $250 a month, driving the bus and washing uniforms to making her sport a commercial success.
Her legacy can’t be measured in monetary amounts. Even the wins/losses do her justice. Summitt’s impact can be seen on the campuses of Martin and Knoxville, but that’s not the real measure of Pat Summitt.
You’re getting closer when you investigate the Pat Summitt Foundation and pay a visit to the Pat Summitt Alzheimer’s Clinic.
I believe the true measure of Summitt can be found in her former players, those who coach with her and against her. And you can also learn about her through the countless stories of everyday encounters with the legendary coach.
Although I’ve shared a room with her, I never got a one-on-one with Summitt. But being in her presence was good enough for me. Because I know for a fact, there was at least two pride Tennesseans in the room.
Thank you, Coach.
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