Insight: Warmth, compassion beyond Pat Summitt’s icy glare

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ZUMA Press / MGN

The intensity radiated through my body like an electric shock.

Pat Summitt’s famous glare sharpened its razor focus on me as I asked my first question. It was 2004, and I was a young newspaper reporter covering the University of Tennessee women’s basketball program.

When starting out as a sportswriter, you make lots of mistakes. But I knew not to make one while the woman who singlehandedly legitimized women’s college basketball created a hole through my body with her glare.

That famous glare is gone now, as Summitt passed away Tuesday at the age of 64 following a five-year battle with Alzheimer’s-type early onset dementia.

Also gone is the honesty, warmth and understanding that was as much a part of Summitt’s character, as well as the hard-charging passion that drove her teams to eight national title games and beyond the point of exhaustion during countless more games and practices.

The trepidation I initially felt melted away as I continued asking my question. The winningest NCAA Division I basketball coach — men’s or women’s — was taking me just as seriously as the veteran reporters who’d been around Knoxville for years.

I could tell. It was in those eyes.

Those same eyes saw her way out of a hard-scrabble rural upbringing that didn’t promise much to anyone, much less a woman. Those eyes saw the way to lift women’s college basketball into a position second only to football at the University of Tennessee. Those eyes watched the growth of a dynasty with six national titles in a 12-year span, and then, bitterly, the ceding of being at the top of the sport to Geno Auriemma and the University of Connecticut.

Those eyes witnessed the growth of a sport from its infancy to an international game. Yes, women’s college basketball is still very much a niche sport, but it was a big deal in Tennessee, where I grew up and started my journalism career.

Men’s basketball coaches, and mediocre men’s basketball seasons, came and went in Knoxville. I don’t remember who was coaching Tennessee’s men’s teams, but I remember receiving a fitness certificate signed “Pat Head Summitt” in elementary school.

It was the first autograph I remember getting from a sports figure. Years later, Summitt was in front of me, legitimizing my question just as sincerely as she legitimized an entire sport.

It’s that genuine, down-to-earth attitude that no doubt allowed her not only to recruit the best women’s players for decades, but motivate them to reach beyond what they had previously been capable of to achieve.

That’s what turns a good coach into a great one. That’s what made Summitt the towering, glowering, and ultimately human legend that she was.


Chuck Myron is a digital content producer for WINK News who has spent much of his journalism career covering college and professional basketball.

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