When I first stepped foot onto the University of Tennessee campus as a 17 year-old freshman from California in 1998, 2400 miles away from home, I didn’t know much about the school (or the state) where I had chosen to further my education and play football. Here’s what I did know about it: I knew about the color orange, I knew about Vol football, and I knew about Pat Summitt. The head coach of Tennessee’s women’s basketball team had earned back-to-back NCAA titles in the two seasons prior to my arrival, and in ’98, the same year the football team won the national championship, she led her team to a third straight title.
Coach Summitt was a living legend on campus. She was known for the passionate competitiveness shown through her sideline moments and a glare that could melt a glacier. After getting to know some of my fellow Vol student-athletes who played for her, I gained a vivid picture of who Pat was. Demanding yet understanding. Tough yet caring. I also learned that every single last one of her players loved her unequivocally—a task not easy for a coach of any sport at any level. There were no superstars with her, she treated everyone equally and commanded your best at all times. No matter where you were on the depth chart, every person played an integral role on the team. That was how Pat operated.
I was lucky enough see firsthand where all that admiration generated from back in September of 2000.
“Who do they think they are?” exclaimed a fiery Pat Summitt, staring into the eyes of every player in the football team’s meeting room. “They’re on our campus... and they’re coming in here like we’re going to bow down to them...this is our home!”
Those were the opening sentiments from Coach Summitt just a few hours before we were to take the field against our arch-nemesis, the Florida Gators. By the time Pat concluded her speech, most guys were out of their seats, clapping and screaming, ready to charge the field. The atmosphere was that of a movie scene, where soldiers are clamoring about, clutching shield and sword about to be thrusted into battle. It was that intense and that serious.
We were all fired up. On what was the biggest game of every year, she took a room full of testosterone and absolutely owned it.
That’s when I knew.
I knew how her teams had been so successful over the years. I knew she could coach a men’s basketball team—better yet, I knew she could coach our football team. I knew her impact transcended women’s basketball.
The University of Tennessee was no longer just a football powerhouse, it was Pat Summitt’s house. Over the course of her 38-year career, she brought 1,098 wins and eight NCAA national championships to Knoxville, while every one of her players who completed her eligibility at Tennessee graduated. She made it impossible for people across the country to ignore women’s basketball. And from her tireless work ethic to her southern charm to her vicious competitiveness, she made it possible for women to see themselves as equals to men and earn respect not just in the sports world, but in every other male-dominated field.
I am honored to say I knew Pat Summitt.