In the blink of an eye, we witnessed the end of an era in not just the women’s side of college basketball, but in the whole sport.
Pat Summitt closed a chapter in college basketball lore with her statement on Wednesday, announcing that she is stepping aside after 38 years at the helm of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball program. The accomplishments she amassed in her nearly four decades at the school will be remembered forever.
Summitt, 59, was diagnosed with early-onset dementia in 2011. She struggled to come to terms with the illness for several months before alerting the media. Summitt said she would coach as long as she was able to with the condition. With the 2011-12 season over, and needing more time to tend to her health, Summitt decided it was time to close this chapter in the school’s history.
Holly Warlick, who was an assistant under Summitt for 27 years and a three time All-American point guard under her guidance, takes over the reins. It is the first coaching change in women’s basketball at Tennessee since Summitt took over from Margaret Hutson in 1974. She leaves the program with a record of 1,098-208 along with eight national championships, 16 Southeastern Conference regular season titles and 16 conference tournament titles. Tennessee reached the Final Four 18 times under Summitt and never missed the NCAA Tournament.
A more telling statistic about Summitt and her commitment to both her team and the school is the fact that every player that used their full complement of eligibility graduated. That number is almost unheard of in any sport at the college level and a rarity in college basketball. In the era of schools being rendered ineligible to play in the NCAA tournament due to poor academic standing, the 100 percent graduation rate shines like a beacon. To have substantial success and high academic ratings is a testament to all Summitt did.
The Early Years
Tennessee dropped women’s basketball in 1926 and did not pick the program up again until 1960. This limited the amount of history that the Lady Volunteers had prior to Summitt. Summitt took over the Tennessee program in 1974 and promptly went 16-8. That was followed by a 16-11 season in 1975-76, the closest that a Tennessee team would come to a .500 record at the end of a season during her tenure at the school. The team also made its first Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) tournament appearance under Summitt.
The AIAW was the women’s sports equivalent of the NCAA during the 1970s. Once the NCAA offered championships in women’s sports, the AIAW ceased to exist. Summitt led the Lady Vols to three straight AIAW Final Four appearances between the 1978-79 and 1980-81 seasons. The team also reached the Final Four in the first women’s tournament held by the NCAA in 1982.
Beginning of a Basketball Powerhouse
The Lady Volunteers made the NCAA Women’s Championship for the first time in school history in 1984 before being defeated by USC, 72-61. Undaunted, they would return to the Final Four in 1986 only to be vanquished. Summitt learned from the defeats and Tennessee would return to the Final Four in 1987 to claim their first championship, defeating Louisiana Tech 67-44. The school would make the Final Four again the next season, only to fall short.
Summitt’s 1989 club won the school’s second championship in three years, knocking off fellow SEC member Auburn 76-70. It was the second of three consecutive defeats in the NCAA Championship for the Lady Tigers. In 1991, Tennessee claimed their third title, winning the first championship game in NCAA women’s history to go to overtime when they defeated the University of Virginia, 70-67. The school would have success in the next few seasons but failed to win another title for five years.
Tennessee’s next visit to the Final Four came in the 1995 NCAA Tournament. Summitt led the Lady Volunteers to the national championship game against Geno Auriemma and the University of Connecticut. In a hard fought battle, the Huskies were victorious, 70-64, denying Tennessee a chance to win a fourth title. They would not have to wait long to make up for that failure.
Summitt signed Chamique Holdsclaw during the 1994-95 season and she would make her debut in Knoxville in 1995-96. The Lady Vols were a force to be reckoned with over the next few seasons. Tennessee became the first women’s school to win back to back to back championships when they turned the trick in 1996, 1997 and 1998. The 1998 team went 39-0, the most victories by an undefeated team in the history of women’s basketball until this year when Baylor went 40-0 in claiming the title.
Even when Tennessee’s chance at a four-peat was halted by Duke, Tennessee still accomplished a feat unseen in women’s basketball at the time. Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall were the first trio to be named All-Americans from one school in a season. In 2002, Summitt broke legendary UCLA coach John Wooden’s mark by appearing in her 13th Final Four. In the 2002-03 season, Summitt became the first women’s coach, and first female, to win at least 800 career games.
Setting Records to the End
Summitt was not finished setting new records. On March 22, 2005, Summitt won game number 880 in her career, putting her past Dean Smith and making her the winningest coach in college basketball history, men’s or women’s. Less than a year later, on January 19, 2006, she picked up win number 900. The school would claim their seventh and eighth championships in 2007 and 2008 behind the leadership of Summitt on the bench and Candace Parker on the floor.
On February 5, 2009, Summitt reached a milestone that no other coach has gotten to when she won her 1,000th career game. While Tennessee did not win a championship or make a Final Four appearance in her final four seasons, the numbers that she compiled are nothing short of awe inspiring. She currently sits 198 wins ahead of any coach in women’s basketball history. Mike Krzyzewski of Duke is the closest competition in wins, having picked up 927 of them in his coaching career.
For Summitt to go out on her own terms, her own way, is only fitting. I wish her the best of luck and that when the clocks read zero, Pat Summitt comes up victorious, the way she has done 1,098 times in her illustrious career.