About a dozen years ago, when Pat Summitt was collecting one NCAA Championship after another, her son Tyler and our son Andrew were playing together on a soccer team. Pat would come to Tyler’s games whenever she could, just wanting to watch her child play, but the adults would invariably swarm about and ply her with questions: How are your new recruits? What about ESPN’s coverage? What are you planning to have for dinner? She was our resident celebrity here, in Knoxville, Tennessee. I could tell all she really wanted to do was just watch her child play ball. But Pat knew her celebrity came with responsibility, and she was always kind to adults and the kids she didn’t know, but who knew her. I recall at one soccer game a bunch of kids were hanging around her, and one of them asked her how her next class of girls was looking. “Terrible!” she replied. Classic Pat Summitt. A fierce stateswoman for womens’ athletics, and relentless when it came to her girls.
I ran into her at many non-profit events. Pat knew what it meant to give back to Knoxville, a community which embraced her and celebrated her. This particular event for the local YMCA was held at a private home, and after she and I had spoken a bit on the back porch veranda, we were all called in to begin the evening’s program. Pat walked in front of me up five or six steps, and I noticed every step was painful for her. She said it was just “a little” arthritis. But in classic Pat style, a little joint pain wasn’t going to get her down. Those itsy bitsy steps? No problem.
I didn’t have the opportunity to sit with Pat when I wrote my book about how to express your competitive spirit at work, as she was in the final stages of dementia. I did have the opportunity to interview her longtime boss and dear friend, former University of Tennessee Athletic Director Joan Cronan. Joan’s story is the first one in the book. She struck me as having as much competitive fire as Pat, two competitive warriors who turned women’s college basketball upside down and showed how even this ‘girl’ sport could make money. Joan will take little credit for all those years of the program’s success, but I know if Pat were still with us, she’d say she couldn’t have done it without Joan. Two women, both from small towns in the most gender- challenged part of the country– the South, casting their footprints on women’s athletics forever. These women brought passion and the will to win to young women everywhere. They were both gamers in the finest sense of the word. Joan has also written a great book about the value of playing games, Sport Is Life with the Volume Turned Up, and she too spreads the good word about the benefits of gamesmanship.
The national media have covered Pat’s passing this week, and maybe it’ll trickle over into the next. But the town of Knoxville, where she made her home and where she touched all of us in some unforgettable way, will be grieving her and celebrating her for months and years to come.