Pat Summitt Stands Alone

You can endlessly argue about who is the greatest coach, and by the time you’re blue in the face, the argument still will be invalid. How can you compare a John Wooden to a Vince Lombardi to a John McGraw? How can you compare coaches across sports and across eras? You can’t.

But when it comes to discussing which coach meant the most to their sport, there is only one logical conclusion.

Pat Summitt was THE key figure in raising the profile of women’s basketball. Sure, the sport isn’t imbeded in the national consciousness like college football or major-league baseball, but for each new plateau the sport has climbed, Summitt has been the face of the game.

Quick, whose the first person you think of when somebody says, “women’s basketball”? How many people answer “Pat Summitt?” 60 percent? 80 percent? 90 percent? Right now, maybe only Tiger Woods would command such a percentage in a given sport, and Summitt has been at that level for 25 years or so.

Certainly nobody in women’s basketball has had as much written about her. And if you’re interested, this Sports Illustrated piece is as good as any:

“Here comes this lady into your life. You don’t know that she has been up all night peeing, racked with pain in her lower back. You don’t know how many people told her she was nuts to get on an airplane and fly to your hometown at a time like this. You don’t know that an hour ago, when her water broke, she was crouched in an eight-seat King Air blotting her legs with paper towels. Hell, you’re 16. You don’t know that she’s spitting Nature in the eye and kicking Time in the teeth.

“She’s sitting on your sofa as you come through the door from school on a September day in 1990, and she grins and grinds her teeth against the contractions. How could you know that it’s already too late—that Pat Summitt’s got you, she’s got you forever?”

Summitt has stepped down as coach at the University of Tennessee, a day that everybody could see coming in the wake of her illness, but one that those who care about women’s basketball were unprepared for. A friend of mine who cares about the sport tweeted that she was reading the story with tears streaming down her face.

Pat Summitt might well be the best coach in any sport at any time. But a better argument can be made that she was the most important.

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