Pat Summitt's legacy is making us take women's sports seriously
Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, 59, has dementia but will still coach
Summitt always pushed women as hard as men and changed perception
The intense Summitt also changed our view of what a women's coach could be
Pat Summitt has won eight national championships at Tennessee, but that is not her legacy. She has won more than 1,000 games and counting, but that is not her legacy. In the coming days, you will undoubtedly hear dozens of former and current players tell stories about how much Summitt meant to their lives, about the lessons she taught them and the things she made them learn about themselves. You hear that about the very best coaches.
But I don't think even that is her legacy.
Summitt has coached her women like they were men. She has done it for so long, and so well, that it now sounds politically incorrect even to say that. We now assume that women should be coached and pushed, not coddled. We assume they should be taught and critiqued and made to run gassers and hit the weight room. We assume they should play not just to play, but to achieve. We assume all of this largely because of Pat Summitt.
The reports that Summitt has early-onset dementia are layered in sadness. There is the sadness, of course, that a 59-year-old woman is losing her mental health. There is the sadness for her family and the painful road ahead. And there is the sports-fan sadness, the kind we feel whenever reality hits our little fantasy world. In an uncertain world, there is something comforting about thinking Joe Paterno and Mike Krzyzewski and Pat Summitt will stay in their jobs forever.
But for me, at least, there is another layer of sadness. As much as anybody in American athletics, Summitt is her sport. She both transcended and legitimized women's basketball.
Summitt made us take women's sports seriously. I can hear some of you cackling back there -- come on, dude, I don't take women's sports seriously. But you do, more than you realize.
You might not watch the women's Final Four. But you recognize it is a legitimate sporting event. You might not watch women's basketball. But you understand that girls have as much right to play as boys. Women can be as competitive and tough-minded as men. They can sweat and bleed and play despite doctors' warnings, just like men.
Pat Summitt believed that long before many women did. When Summitt got the coaching job at Tennessee in the early '70s, she had to sweep the floors and clean the uniforms. Summitt was barely older than the players. Her own playing career was not over yet. Women's sports were an afterthought, an inconvenience, a chore that universities had to finish so they could stage football games.
Title IX forced schools to allocate money for women's sports that they never would have otherwise considered. But it was people like Summitt who turned legislation into an integral part of America. She believed women's sports mattered, when there wasn't much evidence that they did.
She famously came back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament to win a silver medal at the 1976 Olympics -- after she had already started coaching the Vols. She expects that kind of toughness from her players, too.
She changed our view of what a woman's coach could be. She has refused to play Connecticut in the regular season because of her ongoing feud with UConn's mouthy Geno Auriemma; Geno is the Rex Ryan to her Bill Belichick. She wrote an inspirational book, Reach for the Summit, like Rick Pitino and Pat Riley have.
On many occasions, people have asked Summitt if she would want to coach the Tennessee men's team. It is a silly, talk-radio or message-board question --women's basketball and men's basketball are different sports. But I love that people ask her seriously, and I love that she has always said she had no interest in coaching men. She didn't need to jump to something better. For her, and for millions of others, women's sports is as good as it gets. That is her legacy.