by Nicole Powell | @NKP14
It makes sense that great basketball coaches become icons; after all, Dr. James A. Naismith, the inventor of the game, was a coach, first and foremost. Through distinct contributions, but most importantly through the accumulation of wins, a handful of the most important coaches have earned one-name or even nickname recognition.
Red was known for cigars and Championships. Riley gave us Showtime. Knight’s winning strategy incorporated thrown chairs and the occasional use of a choke hold. Phil brought Zen and the Triangle. Coach K implements military-like discipline. And then there’s Pat, a woman who has brought an unprecedented level of winning and grace to the game. Heading into this season, the Tennessee Volunteers coach has accumulated 1,071 wins in her 37 seasons in Knoxville, more than any other NCAA coach. She has also won eight National Championships, only two fewer than John Wooden’s all-time record of 10.
“Her ability to win separates her from the rest,” says Chamique Holdsclaw, winner of three NCAA Championships during her time as a Tennessee Vol. “As the players have changed, [Coach Summitt] has still found a way to win and be the most successful coach—men’s or women’s—of our time.”
Thirteen and a half years ago, in March of 1998, under the playful headline “The Wizard of Knoxville,” the cover of Sports Illustrated asked: “Is Tennessee’s Pat Summitt the best college basketball coach since John Wooden?” In the ensuing years, by dint of win after win after win, compliment after compliment, Coach Summitt has proven again and again to be worthy of that flattering query.
This past August, Summitt, 59, divulged to a stunned world that she was suffering from early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, an incurable brain disorder. In truly Summitt-esque fashion, the legendary coach announced that, despite the seemingly damning diagnosis, she would remain the Vols coach.
We hope to watch Summitt on the bench this year—and for years to come. The announcement, the diagnosis, the coach’s will to keep on coaching and everything surrounding the situation, though, made us decide that now was the time to reflect on her unmatchable legacy and unparalleled impact on the game.
The standard of excellence Coach Summitt has demanded from her student-athletes for 38 seasons and counting at Tennessee is the basis for her team’s continued success. There are no alternative standards for the Holy Grail that is the National Title, no multiple choice answers to choose from when it comes to measuring success. Candace Parker, the latest in a long line of UT legends and the 2008 WNBA MVP and Rookie of the Year, puts it bluntly: “From the coaches down to fans, at the University of Tennessee it was ‘championship or bust.’”
More than wins and champions, Summitt’s players know and speak of something else this woman possesses: a righteous work ethic that is matched only by her generous spirit and devotion to her girls.
“She knows how to perfectly break you down and then build you right back up,” says Holdsclaw. “Outside the lines, she is caring and supportive. This Jekyll and Hide act created a special bond between us. She was tough on me, and at times I thought I would break, but on the other hand I knew she cared about me as a person.”
Tamika Catchings, two-time Olympian and key member of the ’98 championship team, echoes the sentiment. “Pat’s greatest strength is being conscious of making us complete people. While she cares about us on the court, her motivation to wanting more for each of her players is her greatest strength.”
There’s never a day off from doing the right thing once an athlete steps foot on Summitt’s soil. Be late to a team function? Don’t even think about it. Entertaining thoughts of sleeping through your morning Spanish class? That’s a one-game suspension. I played my college ball at Stanford, but even I know Coach Summitt’s “Definite Dozen,” a list of principles that all Lady Volunteers learn to live by:
1. Respect yourself and others
2. Take full responsibility
3. Develop and demonstrate loyalty
4. Learn to be a great communicator
5. Discipline yourself so no one else has to
6. Make hard work your passion
7. Don’t just work hard, work smart
8. Put the team before yourself
9. Make winning an attitude
10. Be a competitor
11. Change is a must
12. Handle success like you handle failure
Do not be fooled into thinking these are just catchy phrases; these statements define a way of life at UT.
“These principles are something that I have carried with me throughout my career and always mention when I speak to groups,” Holdsclaw says. “The success I have had on the court and in life has had a great deal to do with what was instilled in me by these ideas.”
“If there is one that I’ve had to work on the most, it’s No. 4. Learning to be a great communicator. When you become a leader, much is expected of you,” says Catchings, who put Pat’s teachings to work in earning the WNBA MVP award this past season. “I’ve transitioned into different leadership stages throughout my career. I used to be a ‘lead by example’ leader. Then I transitioned into a ‘lead by example with a little communication’ leader. And now, I am more of a ‘lead by example and vocal’ leader. I had to take steps to get here, but I know that the root of me starting my leadership process came from UT and the Definite Dozen.”
“‘Handle success as you handle failure’ is the Definite Dozen principle that I try to most apply to my life,” says Parker. “I think it’s important to never be too high and never be too low. The definition of this would be to continue to work the same way—hard—and to be the best, with disregard of the results. So many times in our lives, people relax when they achieve success and stress when they experience failure. This Definite Dozen principle got me through the ups and downs of college and where I am now as a professional athlete.”