Pat Summitt

UT Martin ’74, UT Knoxville ’75

Pat Summitt pictured with her 8 NCAA championship trophies
Pat Summitt pictured with her 8 NCAA championship trophies

By Joan Cronan

When Pat Summitt found herself making the sudden and unexpected jump from assistant to head coach because the previous coach took a sabbatical, she felt overwhelmed and scared to death. She’d never run a practice or put together a schedule.

Truth is, the woman who would one day hold the winningest coaching record in all of Division I basketball – men’s or women’s – was shy. When mentors called her Pat, she never corrected them that she was actually called Tricia or Trish. She answered to the nickname of Pat and, of course, by the end, that’s what the whole world called her.

In the letter courting her to move to UT Knoxville from West Tennessee—where she had graduated from UT Martin—the physical education department chair, Dr. Helen Watson, wrote, “We have an excellent potential team, and I believe that they would be happy to have you as their coach.”

What an understatement. Pat put women’s basketball on the radar nationally, and she made the Lady Vols basketball program the nation’s best.

During her tenure, the Lady Vols won eight NCAA titles and a combined 32 Southeastern Conference tournament and regular season championships. Tennessee made an unprecedented 31 consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament.

As phenomenally as her teams performed, Pat took greater pride in their achievements after they left the program. One hundred percent of her players who completed eligibility left campus with a degree. Fourteen represented the United States in the Olympics, and 34 went on to careers in the Women’s National Basketball Association.

The Lady Vols season that began in 1997 stands out in my memory for starting with a police escort to UT Martin and ending with a police escort to the White House. Martin was home to Pat, and they named the floor of the arena in her honor—she’s the only person I know to have two basketball courts named for her, as the floor of Thompson Boling Arena also is—and that’s where the season opened. The season ended with another national title and another trip to the White House to celebrate.

Since her death, one of the things I’m asked most often is what qualities Pat taught me.

The first was courage. Next, to always be prepared—and Pat was always prepared. But the main thing she taught me and all of us was humility. Neither I, nor any of the athletes coached by her, will ever meet anybody with more accomplishments and accolades who will be more humble.

—Joan Cronan was UT women’s athletics director from 1983 to 2012.

Part of the Tennessee Alumnus’ 100 Distinguished Alumni feature.