Legendary women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt cuts the net after winning the 2012 SEC tournament, her last as head coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Vols. She built the UT women’s basketball program into a national powerhouse, winning eight national championships. She is remembered as a great coach, mentor, and advocate of women’s sports. Photo by Patrick Murphy-Racey
Deacon Patrick Murphy-Racey of the Diocese of Knoxville is a former newspaper photographer and magazine sports photographer who got to know former University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt while covering her for more than 30 years. After Summitt died on June 28, he posted a remembrance of her online. Below is an edited version of his remembrance.
The Tennessee that I went to sleep in last night is not the same one I woke up in today. Perhaps we are all too close to our own experiences of Pat to realize the impact she has had on us, and we might be too close to the moment of her death this morning to fully understand how the plates below us have shifted.
How many people do we come into contact with who are truly great? Pat was one of those people. Pat was a true trail-blazer. She had to hack through the tall grass of gender prejudice to take each difficult step, and it was not an easy path to cut.
Pat built, brick by brick, an empire of winning that spanned generations. She designed more than just plays. She designed teams of young women whose coach demanded more than they thought they had inside of themselves every day of the week. She was a talented recruiter who saw possibilities in assistants and players who could not see what was obvious to her. Her work ethic was unparalleled on and off the court.
Perhaps her greatest gift was being able to push and mold her players so hard that they began to see her vision inside themselves. While the cost was high, it was the gift of fire that she gave them, and once their flint struck her steel, the championship banners started going up.
Watching Pat coach during games was something to witness. She had an icy stare, almost never smiled, and drove her team with a fierce, yet agile control. Just when you thought you’d figured her out, she’d call a new set of deadly tactics designed to instantly force opponents off balance, and most of the time, they fell and never got back up. She saw everything, missed nothing, and held all of it at once as if in the palm of her hand.
When the buzzer would sound at the end of each game, it acted as if a switch, instantly turning Pat into this grace-filled Southern woman of welcome. The edges of her mouth would rise, a smile would dawn, her dimples would show themselves once again, all in the few seconds it took to walk the 20 feet to center court as she shook hands with her latest victims. They had to smile back out of professional respect and the fact that Pat was asking them about their kids, spouses and friends, just before they’d gather their teams to find the bus for the long ride home. Thompson-Boling Arena often resembled a spider web more than and arena in those days.
I returned home yesterday from a big motorcycle trip exploring the Texas Hill Country. I rode from Little Rock to Knoxville and as I traversed the bridge over the Mississippi River and entered Tennessee, I thought about the great distance Pat had to travel from her home in Henrietta. It was a long road cut short before it was finished. It was a beautiful road filled with God’s certain blessing. It was a road filled with the pot-holes and bumps of discrimination, trials and difficulties that would have broken many people.
It was a mostly straight road never veering far from the next goal, almost a straight line to success, championships, and a life well-lived. It was a road headed east, not into the sun that was always setting, but into the sun always rising.
Pat’s legacy as a person is one of tireless hope for the impossible. Wherever she set her gaze, she achieved that goal, and then some. If Pat had settled to only have been a great player, we would mourn her loss. If only we celebrated her Olympic achievements, we would mourn her loss today. If we chose only to celebrate her life as head coach of the Lady Vols, we would mourn her loss.
The last part of Pat’s legacy is Alzheimer’s. It’s up to us now to beat it into submission and blow it off the sideline. We may live in a fallen world that brings death to each of us, but if we are a people of faith, we can level our own stare at Alzheimer’s and beat it too. The Pat Summitt Foundation, founded after her diagnosis to raise awareness about the disease, would be a logical choice to lend aid. The challenge has been made. Now it’s up to you to act on it: donate at www.patsummitt.org.