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Pat Summitt remembered as trailblazer, intense competitor

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Tennessee coach Pat Summitt was "a big reason I'm in this business" said Maryland coach Brenda Frese.

On Jan. 26, 2012, the Tennessee women's basketball team came to Tuscaloosa, Ala., one more Southeastern Conference stop on what Briana Hutchen called Pat Summitt's "farewell tour."

It's an apt description of the longtime Lady Vols coach's final season on the sideline, if a bittersweet one, because unlike the stars and entertainers of today, who exult in the simple act of a goodbye, Summitt likely knew not whether this game would be her last against Alabama. She planned to keep going as long as possible.

But the winningest coach in Division I basketball history had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia months before, had handed off much of her day-to-day duties to her assistants, and so into Foster Auditorium poured Crimson Tide fans, Tennessee fans and, most of all, Pat Summitt fans. After the game — a Lady Vols win, of course — a line of well-wishers and memorabilia-clutchers stretched out the front door. It was like nothing Hutchen had ever seen.

"I just remember thinking, like, how legendary that is to be a person that people are so amazed at what you have done that they will come to not even see a game, but just to shake your hand," said Hutchen, the Iona director of basketball operations, who played at Rutgers and then Alabama after a standout career at St. Frances. "That really said a lot to me."

With Summitt's death Tuesday morning at age 64, that is how Hutchen chose to remember her: as the icon whose goodness as a person and greatness as a coach prompted a postgame standing ovation in an opposing gym and a beeline of rival players to approach her and say: "As a little girl, I always wanted to play for Tennessee."

Summitt was named Lady Vols coach in 1974, two years after the inception of Title IX legislation mandating a level playing field for women in college sports, and her ascendance over the next 38 seasons pushed basketball and women's athletics into a new era.

She won eight national titles and 84 percent of her games (1,098-208). She ran a program with a perfect graduation rate for all players who completed their eligibility at Tennessee. She had an icy stare and a warm heart, and even in her toughest days preferred the honest-to-goodness truth. "I'm not going to hide anything," Summitt said of her decision to make public her Alzheimer's disease diagnosis, and her efforts to fight it (a foundation she started in her name has raised millions of dollars).

"Pat did so much for our game and for all of women's sports. That will never be forgotten," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said in a statement.

"Just like a lot of young girls, I grew up admiring Coach Summitt and she's a big reason I'm in this business. Her legacy will live on and she will be missed."

President Barack Obama issued a statement in which he cited Summitt's victories and championships while noting, "her legacy, however, is measured much more by the generations of young women and men who admired Pat's intense competitiveness and character, and as a result found in themselves the confidence to practice hard, play harder, and live with courage on and off the court."

Summitt was as feared and respected as she was beloved. She accepted a graduate assistant's job at Tennessee in 1974, at a salary of $250 per month, with the promise she could pursue a master's degree and rehabilitate a knee injury in advance of the Montreal Olympics.

"I was bouncing checks all over the place," Summitt would later recall.

When the women's coach abruptly took a sabbatical to work on a doctorate degree, Summitt was named coach just shy of her 22nd birthday.

She implemented a tough-love formula handed down from her father, Richard, a no-nonsense taskmaster.

Patricia Sue Head was born into farm life on June 12, 1952, in Clarksville, Tenn., and worked hard hours at an early age. She and three older brothers were essentially field hands for their father, chopping tobacco and baling hay.

"If I made a mistake, I got whipped," she once explained in Sports Illustrated. "If I cried, I got whipped harder."

Coaching success did not come immediately. In Summitt's first two seasons, her Tennessee teams had a combined record of 32-19, but she vowed to outwork everyone until her program became competitive. She washed uniforms, taped ankles and drove the team van.

"I made a choice early in my career to challenge myself to step up my game each and every game," Summitt said at her 2012 retirement announcement.

Summitt used fear as a motivator. Before becoming Summitt's longtime assistant and eventual successor, Holly Warlick was Tennessee's point guard in the late 1970s.

"I remember leaving the gym as a freshman, wondering what I was doing to my body and myself," Warlick told the Sporting News in 1994. "And thinking: 'That woman is crazy.'"

Tennessee became a national power but did not win its first NCAA title under Summitt until 1987. The Lady Vols won again in 1989, defeating a Maryland squad led by Vicky Bullett and Deanna Tate in the Final Four. Christy Winters-Scott, who played on that team and now serves as a college basketball analyst, remembered a second-half Terps run foiled by Summitt's 1-3-1 trapping defense. She said in a post on Instagram that hearing "Rocky Top," the unofficial fight song of the Volunteers, still makes her cringe.

"I'll play it today, and smile through my tears," Winters-Scott wrote.

Tennessee won its third championship in 1991 and then three straight starting in 1996. It took the '96 title for Summitt to receive the validation she long sought.

"I was 43 years old before my father hugged me for the first time," she revealed in her autobiography, "Reach For the Summit."

Her father died in 2005.

Summitt, like her dad, had a stubborn streak. In 1990, nine months pregnant, Summitt refused to call off an important recruiting trip to Pennsylvania. She went into labor during the visit and flew back to Knoxville. The pilot wanted to make an emergency landing in Virginia, but Summitt vowed her baby would be born on Tennessee soil. Shortly after landing, she gave birth to her son, Ross Tyler.

As she grew older, Summitt tempered her approach with players.

"I was so busy being tough, I didn't understand the value of getting to know the players on a deeper level," she told Sports Illustrated.

And she coached a lot of good ones. In addition to future Naismith College Players of the Year such as Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker, she landed stars like Western's Dana Johnson, a former Parade and USA Today All-America recruit who now serves as Dunbar's athletic director.

Summitt was a seven-time NCAA coach of the year and, in 2000, was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

She was going full throttle into her late 50s when friends started noticing lapses in her memory. In spring 2011, a battery of tests conducted at the Mayo Clinic revealed early-onset Alzheimer's.

Summitt at first was defiant. When a doctor recommended she retire from coaching, according to The Washington Post, Summitt blurted out: "Do you have any idea who you're dealing with?"

Three months later, in August 2011, Summitt revealed her diagnosis but vowed she would continue to coach. In April 2012, shortly after Tennessee lost to Baylor in the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament, Summitt announced her retirement.

"I can say for almost four decades, it has been a privilege to make an impact on the lives of 161 women who have worn the orange," she said. "We have taken a magnificent journey. We have grown the game of women's basketball each and every day."

She then, literally, handed over her whistle to Warlick.

"It's never a good time," Summitt said. "But you have to find a time you think is the right time. And that is now."

All these years later, Hutchen regrets not savoring the few hours she shared the court with Summitt.

"I didn't even want to stick around and act like a fan," she said, "even though I really, really was."

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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