Pat Head Summitt, the legendary architect of the powerhouse Lady Vols women’s basketball program at the University of Tennessee, had an impact that was felt far beyond the Knoxville campus where she made her name.
Her success and drive for excellence helped raise the level of interest in girls basketball and the quality of play throughout Tennessee high schools and middle schools, Jinx Cockerham, former girls basketball and volleyball coach at Father Ryan High School, said of Summitt, who died on June 28 at age 64.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Summitt was the biggest advocate for Tennessee high schools converting from the three-on-three game for girls basketball to the five-on-five game that was being played on the college level and in the boys game, said Cockerham, who retired last year after 46 years as a legendary coach at Father Ryan in her own right.
In the three-on-three game, each team had three defensive players and three offensive players who weren’t allowed to cross half court. Summitt argued that the girls playing under those rules were falling behind in developing their skills and were not prepared to play the college game, Cockerham explained.
“She pushed it for girls all over the country. They weren’t having the same opportunities as other girls” who were playing the five-on-five game at a younger age, Cockerham said.
“She felt most of the females were a little behind, and we were,” Cockerham said.
“I don’t know of another single college coach who was as strong an advocate as she was,” Cockerham added. “I was a little reluctant at first, because I liked the (three-on-three) game. But there was no doubt to keep up with everyone else we had to change.”
Summitt’s advocacy was not just to benefit her program at Tennessee, Cockerham said, but to give women more opportunities to play at all levels of college competition. “You see how many Tennessee athletes now have opportunity to play” in college, she added.
Summitt was born in Clarksville, Tennessee, about 60 miles northwest of Nashville, and grew up on a farm in Henrietta, Tennessee, playing basketball with her brothers. She starred at Cheatham County Central High School, just west of Nashville, and later at the University of Tennessee-Martin. She became the head coach at Tennessee at age 22 in 1974, and two years later was the co-captain of Team USA, which won a silver medal at the 1976 Olympics.
She soon built Tennessee into a national power and eventually ended her Hall of Fame career with 1,098 victories, the most of any Division I basketball coach – men’s or women’s – in NCAA history, and eight national championships.
Her success had an impact on high school, and even middle school, coaches throughout Tennessee, Cockerham said, as they adopted some of her methods.
Summitt would have her team of women’s players practice against men to sharpen their skills. “She would talk about that,” Cockerham said. “When I heard that, I did that too.
“She did a lot of things like that that you wouldn’t have thought about,” Cockerham said. Now, her methods are commonplace, she said.
In 2011, Summitt revealed that she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s. She continued coaching for one more season before retiring at the end of the 2012 season. She died on Tuesday, June 28. A private service and burial for family and friends in Middle Tennessee, where she was born and raised, and a Celebration of Life service, open to the public, will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 14 at Thompson-Boiling Arena at the University of Tennessee, where the court is named in her honor.