Pat Head Summitt: The story behind the women’s basketball legend
Published: Thursday, September 27, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 27, 2012 19:09
Women’s basketball hasn’t always been the way it is now. Women can now be seen dominating the court as well as the men can.
In the 1940s and 1950s, it was frowned upon for women to play college sports. It was bad for women of childbearing years to be running up and down a court in shorts. People thought they would harm their bodies in some way and make it impossible for women to have children.
For twenty years, the women of UTM were upset about this fact, but were quiet. It wasn’t until 1969 when the women let their voices be heard. They wanted a team they could call their own, and they would do just about anything for that to happen.
Bettye Giles was the voice of those women. Born in Montgomery County, Giles went to Austin Peay State University for her degree in physical education and graced the campus of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville for her masters. She came to UTM in 1952 and started a revolution to see women’s athletics take flight.
Before 1969, UTM, as well as many other schools around the country, did not allow women to play on a sanctioned team. They were only allowed to play on intramural teams. By the time 1969 rolled around, the women on this campus were tired of playing intramurals. They wanted to play against other teams. Giles was going to make sure her women could play.
In 1969, the athletic board gave its consent for women’s varsity basketball, volleyball and tennis teams. However, the sports didn’t have scholarships.
A year later, the coach that would be one of the most decorated women’s basketball coaches in history would grace the court and campus of UTM.
Pat Head Summitt, Pat Head as she was known upon her arrival at UTM, was born in Clarksville, Tennessee, on June 14, 1952. She grew up on the family farm along with her three older brothers and a younger sister.
When she was in high school, her father sold the family farm and moved the family to Henrietta, Tennessee so Pat could play basketball for Cheatham County High School in Ashland City, because Clarksville didn’t have a girl’s high school team. After graduating from Cheatham County High, she came to UTM.
She came to campus just as the first varsity team was established in 1970-71 season. She went to Giles, whom she had known back in her home county of Cheatham, and asked when basketball practice started. Volleyball was the first sport of the season and Summitt joined the team as a conditioner to basketball. She also joined the volleyball team because Nadine Gearin, the volleyball coach, was also the basketball coach.
While attending UTM, Summitt enjoyed history and her major of physical education. She was a member of Chi Omega and a busy body.
“She wasn’t the type to skip classes. She just loved life,” said Bettye Giles, the first director of women’s athletics at UTM.
During her college career, Summitt would go on to lead the then Lady Pacers to a 64-29 record. She won a trip to the national championship in 1972 and again in 1973. Also in 1973, she won a silver medal in U.S. World University Games. She graduated as UTM’s all-time leading scorer with 1,045 points in 1974.
In 1974, just before the ‘74-‘75 season, Summitt was given the position of head coach of the women’s basketball team at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville while working as a graduate assistant.
Women’s basketball was not sanctioned even though Title IX had been passed in 1972. Title IX stated that no student could be discriminated against, denied benefit, be excluded from participation, or denied funding for any educational activity. This included women’s basketball, and yet there were still no scholarships.
Summitt was only 22 years old when she accepted the position. Four of her players were only a year younger than her, but she didn’t let that deter her. She was determined to make her players the best they could be.
In 1975, Summitt was a player of the U.S. National Team to Taiwan, a gold medalist at the Pan American Games. In 1976, Summitt joined the 1976 Women’s Olympic Basketball Team in winning a silver medal. After the Olympics, Summitt went back to Knoxville to coach.
No one knew that the 22-year-old graduate assistant would become the most prized female coach in women’s athletics.
By the mid-80s, Summitt had led her team to a state championship, seven Final Fours where they ranked third or better and two NCAA regionals where they didn’t place below third. 1986 would be where she led her team to the first of many crowning achievements. That year the Lady Vols won their first NCAA Championship.
By the time she hit her 20-year mark in 1994, Summitt and her team had accumulated three more NCAA championships, placed third or higher at the NCAA Regionals and took third at 1988 Final Four. According to www.utsports.com, she was enshrined in the Women’s Sports Foundation Hall of Fame in New York City in 1990.
Her accomplishments are what make her the winningest female coach in women’s Division I college basketball. She has never had a losing season. Over the last 38 years, Summitt and the women who have come up through the ranks as Lady Vols have been 16-time SEC Champions and SEC Tournament Champions and 8-time NCAA Champions. They have been to the Final Four thirteen times where they have placed third or better.
Summit has been awarded several significant awards. Among these awards is the Naismith Basketball Coach of the Century that she received in April 2000. In 2008, she was awarded the Best Coach/Manager ESPY Award. Sports Illustrated named her Sportswoman of the Year in New York City on Dec. 6, 2011.