That’s what sports departments I worked in called women’s basketball. Labels banter about safely in the presumed safety of like minds. Women’s athletics’ best chance at appreciation didn’t come through regard, admiration or respect.
More likely, it’d come from a news editor so enamored with tennis player Mary Pierce that he locked in every image the Associated Press moved on the wire of her.
The late Pat Summitt, the legendary University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach, couldn’t have cared less what close-minded editors thought of her. Or what they thought of her program or gender or sport or place in a game they considered a man’s.
[Don’t know Coach Pat? Watch this.]
Pat Summitt’s approach transcended basketball. All of it.
Pat died last month at age 64, having battled early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. I never had the honor of attending a post-game presser of hers. I tuned in many times to see Coach Pat’s latest rendition of wrecking ball basketball.
161 former players say goodbye
I crushed on more than one of her players.
Not the least of which: Michelle Marciniak, who gave a stirring eulogy for Coach Pat, in front of 161 former players. One hundred sixty-one. I’ve dreamed of my own funeral, hoping a handful of my former players would come by to send me off. Think about that.
One hundred sixty-one.
Michelle’s pretty. That’s barely 10% of it. She played with such incredible energy and determination, pretty wouldn’t matter. I wanted her to sign with the Denver Nuggets. This, before Elise ever stopped a goal, or Marie or Grace ever scored one.
Coach Pat’s lessons, to me:
1. Roll with dignity, make no apologies.
A fan base – or parent sideline – will feed off your intent, if you’re strong enough. Coach Pat’s team once crushed Stetson in the NCAA tournament by 65 points. Lady Vols fans remained classy throughout.
After the final buzzer, Coach Pat shook hands with Stetson coach Lynn Bria.
Lynn, who’d dreamed of playing for Pat’s program, kept all the personal letters she’d exchanged with her in hopes of becoming a recruit. Coach Pat always responded with handwritten notes.
After that historic blowout, Coach Pat shook Lynn’s hand, looked her in the eye, and praised her for her program.
2. Once your player, always your player.
Some kids – a lot of them – I coached now look down on me. Literally. They’ve grown, gone to college, left soccer for good or embraced it for life. I see them in Walmart or Target or maybe they’ll take my order at Bojangles and share with me their college plans.
They’re always my players, though. It’s an honor. Pat Summitt’s players reached the WNBA or corporate America or sidelines at other schools and carried the high standards and strength they learned from their coach. And Coach Pat always had her players’ backs.
Los Angeles Sparks coach Brian Agler told ESPN he could see Pat’s influence in her players.
“She challenged them to be great people and great players – and they have so much respect for her,” he said in this article.
3. ‘Lady’ is synonymous with Strong.
Pat Summitt taught me about coaching long before I ever coached. She won and influenced and changed a sport’s trajectory not by playing in the women’s game by men’s rules, but by galvanizing what it meant to compete as a woman.
It’s not even acceptance. It’s imposition.
It’s a fear in the back of men’s minds when they saw her squad demolish opponents and hone the game to an admirable luster: Hell, her team, with ponytails and women’s cut jerseys and Lady Vols scripted on the chest, could beat my school’s men’s team.
A lady can burst with beauty and in skill, in heart and in compassion. Olympians and MMA fighters and fierce moms carry that, too. Olympians and MMA fighters and fierce moms carry that, too.
Every girl who knocks a boy on his can on a soccer pitch or with a brush-back pitch on the diamond carries with her a bit of Coach Pat’s high standards.
Pat Summitt’s approach transcended basketball. Fearless – and sometimes fearful – female competitors who develop skills and retain pride in their femininity in all sports aren’t so uncommon anymore.
I love how her team retained the Lady Vols nickname way beyond times when political correctness rendered it antiquated.
Those were ladies who played for Coach Pat – ladies who could school you, but ladies, nonetheless. We coaches of girls can never forget that.
Regardless of who gets the headlines.