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Pat Summit, Trailblazer of Women’s Sports, Dies at 64

Pat Summit, former coach for Tennessee’s Lady Vols basketball team and icon of women’s sports, died early on June 28 in Knoxville, TN. She had the most victories of any coach in college basketball history for both male and female teams, and was a luminary figure in the rise of women’s sports. She died at the age of 64 after a battle with early on-set Alzheimer’s and dementia.

“In modern history, there are two figures that belong on the Mount Rushmore of women’s sports — Billie Jean King and Pat Summitt,” said sports sociologist Mary Jo Kane. Her statement is reminiscent of many peoples’ remembrance of the legendary Summit, both in Tennessee and across the country.

Summit graduated from the University of Tennessee at Martin in 1974, where her excellence as a basketball player earned her two national championships. At the age of 22 she became the Director of Women’s Basketball at the University of Tennessee. She began her coaching career while continuing to pursue her passion for playing the game. Summit co-captained the US women’s team that won a silver medal at the 1976 Olympics. Eight years later she would push her team to a gold medal as the coach of the US women’s basketball team in the 1984 Olympics.

Summit brought tenacity and passion to her role as head of women’s basketball for the Lady Vols at a time when women’s sports received little support. Though Title IX passed in 1972, the NCAA didn’t begin their sponsorship of women’s basketball until 1982, 43 years after their first tournament for men. In her early coaching years, Summit would hold doughnut sales to raise funds and wash the uniforms herself, sleeping on gym floors during away games.

Under Summit’s guidance, the Lady Vols won eight NCAA championships and 32 combined Southeastern Conference Titles. When asked to coach the men’s basketball team, she refused. “Why is that considered a step up?” she commented. At the time of her retirement, Summit had a record of 1,098 wins to only 208 losses. She never had a losing season in her 38 years as head coach for the Lady Vols. Her tenure as coach was also marked by a 100% graduation rate for her players.

Pat Summit was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, and the FIBA Hall of Fame. In 2012, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. In a statement released today, the President lauded Summit as an inspiration to many, including his two daughters.

“Growing up in big orange country, it was so important to see a woman leading the Vols.,” said Anna Greer, intern at the Feminist Majority Foundation. “Pat Summit was tough and unapologetic. Football may be the king in Tennessee athletics, but I had Pat to look to when I was little, and I’m forever thankful for her accomplishments.”

After her diagnosis of early on-set Alzheimer’s, Pat Summit dedicated her final years to raising awareness and to finding a cure, starting the Pat Summit Foundation Fund, which invested in nonprofit organizations researching Alzheimer’s and provided support to patients.