As a Kentucky girl in a Tennessee world, I have always embraced my role of a rebel. My allegiance to UK has never been muddy or murky. Being inundated with orange made my defiance louder. Mind you, I developed my rebellious attitude as a ten-year old. Mom and I moved from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky into a small town just outside of Knoxville. UT just won the 1998 college football championship, “VolMania” was at fever pitch, and my 5th grade teacher’s classroom was covered in orange. Mrs. Pam Evans was a huge Tennessee fan and a lover of basketball. Needless to say, she loved Pat Summitt.
I didn’t want to like Coach Pat Summitt, though. I didn’t want to like anything about the University of Tennessee. Everywhere I went is was, “Go Big Orange.” As a die-hard Kentucky fan, I felt smothered and out-of-place. I was annoyed by the excitement of game day; and if it was vs. UK, I was at war. I saw every Tennessee star as a villain. The only thing worse than the villains themselves were those that coached them.
But strangely, not Coach Summitt.
It began with Mrs. Evans’ enthusiasm for the legendary women’s coach. It softened a place in my heart. I always thought Mrs. Evans was the coolest. Still do, actually. But Pam Evans was not just a fan; she admired Summitt. They were kindred spirits at five major points: faith, motherhood, basketball, coaching, and Tennessee. Even at ten years old, I could see why she loved Summitt… and I could not bring myself to dislike her. I mean, I wanted to. Oh man, did I want to. She wore orange.. and won! Conversely, I was enamored with her. Patricia Sue Head Summitt amazed me. I could not put my finger on what it was about her, but she drew me in– hook, line, and sinker. Well into my 20’s, I remained a very closeted Lady Vols sympathizer and a huge Pat Summitt fan.
In 2011 when Summitt announced to the world that she was fighting early onset dementia, I bawled. I was so angry that Alzheimer’s chose her of all people and there was no cure on the horizon. I know that Pat was a normal human being, but her attitude and fortitude made her feel invincible to me. There was never an obstacle that she couldn’t overcome or a foe she couldn’t challenge. Leave it to something as cruel and ruthless as Alzheimer’s to take her out. I was mad as hell then, and quite frankly, I still am.
She should still be coaching. She should still be winning. She should have 2,000+ wins with no end in sight. She should be making any other coach with an aspiration to meet that record feel like an idiot. She should still be yelling, and staring, and… breathing.
Coach Pat Summitt should still be alive.
She’s not. That hurts me deep. I spent all Tuesday wanting to take that short trip to Knoxville; to go to her statue on UT’s campus that celebrates her legacy. I wanted to be amongst people who appreciated her as I did. Instead, I sat and watched the never-ending news coverage of her death. I wanted to go, but couldn’t. What would I do there? Sit and cry? I was already doing that. Lay flowers at the feet of her bronze statue? Lady Vols Head Coach, Holly Warlick said it best: “Pat would think it’s a perfectly good waste of flowers.” I stayed home. Maybe I’ll go tomorrow. Maybe not.
What was it about Pat Summitt that made us feel like we knew her when we didn’t? How was it that she made me feel like I was a part of what she was doing when I wasn’t even a Tennessee fan at all? I am going to miss her so much. How can this be? I guess it’s all just part of her magic.. and let’s face it y’all, that woman was magical. Those piercing blue eyes could cut you like a knife, yet her smile could melt icebergs and her laugh was contagious. Multifaceted is what she was. Tough yet tender; staunch yet forgiving; unrelenting yet merciful; and gritty yet classy. I can imagine her eating barbwire for breakfast yet serving her guests with the most delicious homemade breakfast quiche.
She was a trailblazer in every sense of the word. Without Pat Summitt, I would challenge any notion that women’s basketball would have the clout and notoriety it enjoys today. As Assistant UK Women’s Basketball Coach, Lin Dunn said, “Summitt was a pioneer in women’s sports. Before Title IX, though Title IX, she was a tremendous fighter…” Fighter indeed. Would the WNBA be what is it without her? Would Geno Auriemma, Muffet McGraw, or Kim Mulkey stand quite as tall without Pat Summitt? No chance.
You could add up the wins, awards, and accolades, and still not find a way to measure her success. There is no metric.
She is Pat Summitt.
She is the metric.
She is the bar.
She is the gold standard.
Alzheimer’s may have taken her life, but it cannot touch her legacy. She thrusted the cruel disease into the limelight for all to see. May the bright lights of notoriety bring increased research until that research becomes a cure.
I’m grateful that Mrs. Evans taught me to admire Summitt before I could vilify her. I’m thankful that the bitterness of rivalry didn’t stop me from embracing such a legendary woman. I’m thankful that she was so magnetic, it was as if I didn’t even have a choice. I’ll be a UK fan until I’m graveyard dead, but I’m grateful to be a fan of Coach Summitt. I’m thankful for the opportunity to enjoy her mastery.
I’ll proudly wear orange on Friday, Coach, as we celebrate your life and legacy. I will never do it again, but I’ll tearfully yet happily do it this once for you.
Only for you, Coach. Only for you.