35 years. 1,098 wins. 8 National Championships. 18 NCAA Final Four appearances. 1 undefeated season. 100% graduation rate. These are just a few of the remarkable accomplishments achieved by the legendary University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach, Pat Summitt, who lost her battle against Alzheimer’s disease on June 28, 2016. Many commentators credit Coach Summitt not only for paving the way for women’s basketball but for all women’s sports in general. Specifically, many point to the high salaries college women basketball coaches currently receive and the significant increase in television air time for all women’s sports as a direct result of her influence.
I have been a huge Lady Vols fan since 1985. Since then, I’ve spent a significant amount of time in Knoxville watching Lady Vols games while also traveling the country to attend nine NCAA Final Four championships (including Tennessee’s back-to-back titles in 2007 and 2008). Moreover, I was fortunate to attend the recent Celebration of Life remembrance service for Coach Summitt in Knoxville.
After the service, I reflected on the indelible impact Coach Summitt had, not only on her players, coaches and assistants, but on many women, myself included. Over the years, I have met a number of women at Lady Vols games who were attending the games not so much for the basketball but because they had been inspired by Coach Summitt. In fact, many of these same types of women traveled from various parts of the country to attend the Celebration of Life service. This lead me to ask what was it about Coach Summitt that lead to her having such an impact on so many women both inside and outside the world of basketball?
Not surprisingly, over the last month many words have been used to describe Coach Summitt – friend, teacher, champion, mother, leader, mentor, pioneer and hero. Of all these wonderful descriptions, I believe it was her role as a mentor that is one of the reasons she has had such a far-reaching impact on so many women.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “mentor” as “someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less-experienced and often younger person; a trusted counselor or guide.” Interestingly, the word “mentor” has its roots in Greek mythology. Specifically, in the Odyssey, Mentor was a character who advised and protected Odysseus’ son Telemachus. Later, in 1699, in Les Aventures de Télémaque (“The Adventures of Telmachus”), we are introduced to Mentor, Telmachus’ tutor and the ultimate hero of the story who is also revealed to be Minerva, the goddess of wisdom in disguise. It is believed that the word “mentor” may have arisen from this book.
For many women, Coach Summitt was a trusted counselor and guide. Let’s look at some of the traits that have made her such an extraordinary mentor for so many diverse women.
- Coach Summitt was an excellent communicator. Coach Summitt believed that developing good communication skills was extremely important because “[C]ommunication eliminates mistakes”. Moreover, she believed that good communication involved using more than just using your voice, but listening, making good eye contact and using your body. In fact, many of Coach Summitt’s players were keenly aware of what Coach Summitt was communicating without a single word being spoken when they received her famous steely “stare” after making a mistake or not following her directions.
- Coach Summitt believed in self-reflection and never shied away from examining what she did and why and how it could be improved. In her book Reach For The Summitt, Coach Summitt wrote that when a good plan works, “you don’t write it off to luck or good fortune. You examine it, and ask yourself why things turned out so well.” Throughout her career, she was constantly revamping and tweaking the Lady Vols offense and defense, always looking to new ways to improve. For example, in the mid-1990’s, she studied and ultimately put her own spin on the triangle half-court offense made famous by the Chicago Bulls. This new offense is believed to be one of the factors that contributed to the Lady Vols winning the first of three straight national championships from 1996-1998.
- Coach Summitt believed that confidence came from hard work and practice. In fact, she phrased it quite simply when she said, “Here’s how I’m going to beat you. I’m going to outwork you. That’s it. That’s all there is to it.”
- Coach Summitt demanded excellence not only from herself and everyone around her. It was well known that Pat Summitt was extremely competitive. Not only did she demand excellence from herself, but all those around her as well – players, coaches, staff, etc. To her, effort or intensity was not optional. In fact, she treated every practice with the same focus as her 18 NCAA Final Four appearances. According to Coach Summitt, “You can’t always be the most talented person in the room, but you can be the most competitive.”
- Coach Summitt was honest. No matter the circumstance – good or bad, win or loss, Coach Summitt was always straightforward and honest and was never afraid to pull any punches. She valued the honesty in others stating, “[T]he absolute heart of loyalty is to value those people who tell you the truth, not just those people who tell you what you want to hear. In fact, you should value them most. Because they have paid you the compliment of leveling with you and assuming you can handle it.”
- Coach Summitt was compassionate and had a generous spirit. While extremely tough on her players, Coach Summitt was equally if not more compassionate for her players when necessary. Of all her accolades, Coach Summitt said that the one she was most proud of was the 100% graduation rate. To her, she not only wanted her players to succeed on the court and at Tennessee, but also in life.
“You win in life with people” – Pat Summitt