Fighting for the Lady Vols: Pat Summitt’s Legacy Lives On
Pat Summitt / Lady Vols
Photo by M.M. Cornelius

As I read about Pat Summitt’s death over the summer, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the impact she had on me growing up. After all, sharing a hometown with one of the most inspiring women in sports history doesn’t happen every day. While many sports fans know Pat Summitt as “that Tennessee coach who always looked so intense in photos,” those like me who grew up in Knoxville, TN know her as the tough-as-nails basketball coach who changed women’s sports forever. I remember going to Lady Vols basketball games as a teenager and seeing my mother, an avid sports fan herself, glow with pride as Coach Summitt led Tennessee to yet another victory. She was not only a coach to her world-class team of women athletes who won 1,098 games and eight NCAA championships, but also a coach to thousands of young women across the country. By watching Coach Summitt, we saw what we could do and who we could become: champions.

Pat Summitt (née Head) grew up on a Tennessee farm in Clarksville with four brothers, reflecting later, “I was the only girl. They beat me up, but that made me tougher.” Her hardy upbringing instilled in her an unbreakable toughness and sense of perseverance, qualities she carried with her as she played women’s basketball for UT-Martin. Whatever the source of her strength, Summitt went on to not only succeed in her own college basketball career, but to become the most successful Division I college basketball coach in history, male or female.

Over the course of her career as head coach, she helped transform women’s basketball, and in turn all UT women’s athletics, from sports that were overlooked into those that demanded national recognition. When Summitt took over coaching for the Lady Vols in 1974, she inherited a team with a rocky history. Despite that, she led her team to their first ever AIAW Final Four in 1978, followed by two more tournament successes that led the Lady Vols to their first NCAA women’s basketball tournament in the 1981-82 season.

She demanded honesty from everyone around her and pushed her players to value truth the same way.

The Lady Vols’ dominance in women’s college basketball continued through the 1990s, when Summitt guided her team to their third straight 30-win season, third straight SEC title and third straight SEC Tournament title. Because of the Lady Vols’ unrivaled success in the 1997-98 season, both Coach Summitt and her team were the subjects of an HBO documentary titled “A Cinderella Story: The Lady Vols Fight Back.” But the Lady Vols’ successes weren’t confined to the court. Those who knew Pat Summitt recall how she passionately believed in instilling within her players a commitment to helping and respecting others, a sense of personal integrity and responsibility, and giving 100 percent effort and dedication to any task. She demanded honesty from everyone around her and pushed her players to value truth the same way. And perhaps most importantly for college athletes, she required each of her players to fulfill their responsibilities as students, believing academic success was just as important as athletics.

Although she was the head coach of women’s basketball, the most high profile team within the department, her commitment to UT women’s athletics extended far beyond basketball. When she was first brought on as head coach, she also served as a physical education teacher and helped the other women’s teams with recruiting and leadership. Though she developed the foundation upon which present-day UT women’s basketball rests, she was invested in all UT women’s athletics and all women athletes at the university proudly called themselves Lady Vols.

Adding to her already-prestigious list of accolades and accomplishments, including being the co-captain of the 1976 women’s Olympic basketball team, in 2012, a year after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, President Obama awarded Summitt the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor any civilian can receive in the U.S. So to say that Coach Summitt is a point of pride for Tennesseans is an understatement. She represents the best of what some of us come from, who we are, and who we can be. When asked what Pat Summitt means to her, my mother proudly explains that Summitt has been a lifelong inspiration. “We watched her change the game of basketball, change women’s collegiate athletics for all sports, create opportunities for young women, and change lives as a result.”

But with her unexpected diagnosis of Alzheimer’s came a tragedy for the UT women’s athletics program. On November 10, 2014, two and a half years after Summitt stepped down as head coach for health reasons, the University’s Athletic Director, Dave Hart, announced a decision to discontinue the Lady Vols brand for all women’s teams except basketball. The decision was allegedly made for financial reasons and went into effect in July 2015. Under his leadership, both the men’s and the women’s athletics programs—excluding women’s basketball—fall under one University logo: the Power T. But with this shift comes the erasure of an iconic emblem of women’s athletic and academic excellence.

But what Coach Summitt did for women, both athletes and non-athletes, will not be undone.

For anyone who knows UT sports, the first thing that comes to mind is UT football, partly because Knoxville is a community soaked in orange during football season, and partly because football reigns king in the Southeast. But UT’s second-most iconic claim to fame is the Lady Vols. How can the University afford to do away with one of its most unique programs—the kind that other universities only aspire to? Given how revered and respected Summitt is, it’s difficult to imagine that this rebranding decision would have taken place if she hadn’t been fighting her toughest fight yet, against Alzheimer’s. And perhaps most heartbreaking of all is how easy it is for the athletic board to justify their decision to erase a logo that changed the history of women’s athletics, an emblem representative of qualities difficult for so many to embody and achieve.

But what Coach Summitt did for women, both athletes and non-athletes, will not be undone. For those Lady Vols fans who understand the importance of what Coach Summitt built and the legacy she left behind, the rebranding decision is a provocation to fight ceaselessly for what is right. My own mother has been a driving force in a region-wide initiative to bring back the Lady Vols logo for all UT women’s athletics. “We want to honor Pat’s wishes. She gave us and taught us so much for so many decades, and this is something we want to do for her,” she explains. Along with several other fans and many supportive state legislators, she has collected over 33,000 petition signatures, protested at the Board of Trustees meeting when they would not put this issue on their agenda, organized social media campaigns, and orchestrated publicity events, most notably one in which the activists attended a Lady Vols basketball game and handed out bright orange T-shirts with “Save the Lady Vols!” emblazoned on the front. They won’t back down until the logo, representative of so much for women’s collegiate athletics nationwide, is realized again in all its glory. And in the process, they will continue to honor her legacy, which goes far beyond a logo or a trophy, and reflects a strength of spirit that can never be shut down.

This essay originally appeared in the Fight issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Fight issue here or read The Important Lesson My Roommate Taught Me.