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The former Lady Vols coach stepped down in 2012 after being diagnosed with dementia.Video provided by Newsy
Newslook

Pat Summitt, who won more games than anyone in college basketball history, man or woman, died early Tuesday, five years since being diagnosed at 59 with early onset dementia in the form of Alzheimer’s.

The legendary coach, who never had a losing record in 38 seasons, shocked the sports world in May 2011 when she announced she would continue at the University of Tennessee despite the diagnosis. It was as if she were staring down her disease with the same icy glare she made famous while winning eight national championships and the respect of a nation that didn’t pay much attention to women’s sports when she was growing up.

“It is with tremendous sadness that I announce the passing of my mother, Patricia Sue Head Summitt,” her son Tyler Summitt said in a statement on Tuesday. “She died peacefully this morning at Sherrill Hill Senior Living in Knoxville surrounded by those who loved her most.”

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Pat Summitt has had a long and illustrious career coaching basketball at the University of Tennessee.
Larry McCormack / Tennessean

Summit coached that one last season with great help from her assistants, and ended her career winning an astonishing 84% of her games (1,098-208). President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, recognized, with the Congressional Gold Medal, as the nation’s highest civilian awards.

“She’ll be remembered as the all-time winningest D-1 basketball coach in NCAA history,” Tyler Summitt said in the ststament, “but she was more than a coach to so many – she was a hero and a mentor, especially to me, her family, her friends, her Tennessee Lady Volunteer staff and the 161 Lady Vol student-athletes she coached during her 38-year tenure.”

“Pat Summitt is our John Wooden,” Baylor women’s coach Kim Mulkey said in comparing Summitt to the legendary men’s basketball coach at UCLA. “No matter how many national championships (other coaches) win, there will never be another Pat.”

Summit had begun to worry about her health during the 2010-11 season when she drew a blank on an offensive set during a game, then sought a diagnosis at the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins — who wrote biographies with Summitt and considered Summitt her best friend — wrote that the coach almost punched the first doctor who told her she was beginning to experience dementia. When a second advised her to retire immediately, Summitt said, “Do you know who you’re dealing with?”

Rivalry, resentment, respect

Geno Auriemma did. The Connecticut coach was Summitt’s chief rival, their feud so bitter over time that the programs no longer play in the regular season.

Summitt addressed her contentious relationship with Auriemma in her 2013 book Sum it Up: 1,098 Victories, a Couple of Irrelevant Losses, and a Life in Perspective, written with Jenkins.

The relationship was friendly at first. In the fall of 1998, while Summitt was in Hartford for a book tour, Auriemma sent a bouquet with a note: “Congratulations. I hope your next visit is not nearly so successful.”

When Summitt got a fish tank for the basketball offices at Tennessee and two of the fish tried to devour one another, she named them Pat and Geno. “I’d walk into the office,” Summitt wrote, “and check the tank and ask our secretaries cheerfully, ‘Did Pat eat Geno yet?’ ”

Sometimes the coaches compared details of their contracts so they could help one another win raises in their salaries.

“For all of that,” Summitt wrote, “Geno and I didn’t socialize much; in all the years we competed, we had dinner just once, whereas I shared meals with other coaches regularly. … Geno always liked to make barbed remarks, but it seemed to me that from 2000 on, they had an ungenerous edge. Oddly, the more success UConn had, the more Geno seemed to resent Tennessee.”

Summitt ultimately ended the series because of what she felt were UConn’s unfair recruiting tactics. “I didn’t itemize my complaints publicly then,” she wrote, “and I’m not going to now.”

In the intervening years “the anger and suspicion have dissipated, replaced by the original bond,” Summitt wrote. “Shortly before I announced my diagnosis, a note came in the mail. It was from Geno, saying he’d heard I had health issues, and he was thinking about me.”

When she went public, and formed a foundation to fight Alzheimer’s, a Summitt friend who was associate commissioner of the Big East asked Auriemma if he wanted to be the first contributor: “He wrote out a check on the spot — for $10,000.”

Auriemma released a statement on the day Summitt’s diagnosis was announced, which said in part: “There is no doubt in my mind that Pat will take on this challenge as she has all others during her Hall of Fame career — head on. I wish her all the best.”

Women’s sports pioneer

Summitt, a Tennessee native, drew upon her early experiences of learning to expect the most out of herself as a guidepost to her coaching career.

After her last national championship, in 2008, she talked of a story she would tell often about a day when she was 12 and her father, a dairy and tobacco farmer, left her off in a hayfield, pointed toward a tractor and said, “When I come back, this work better be done.”

No instructions for work she had never done. No sympathy from her father, Richard Head.

His daughter just figured it out and completed the grueling task, learning to overcome, as she would for years in the uphill battle of elevating women’s sports while juggling motherhood and an all-encompassing career.

She learned to shoot hoops in a barn loft with her brothers, became an All-America basketball player at the University of Tennessee-Martin and won a silver medal on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team. When Summitt coached the USA to gold at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, she became the first in U.S. Olympic basketball history to play on and coach medal-winning teams.

She married banker R.B. Summitt in 1980, had a son a decade later and got divorced in 2007. Their child, Tyler, played as a walk-on on the men’s team at Tennessee, was an assistant women’s basketball coach at Marquette, became the head coach at Louisiana Tech and resigned this year after admitting to an inappropriate relationship with a player.

“It seems like she teaches me something new every day,” Tyler Summitt said in a statement when his mother’s diagnosis was announced, “and she is currently giving me one of the best life lessons of all: to have the courage to be open, honest and face the truth.”

Summitt’s eighth and final national championship, in 2008, came in a 64-48 victory against Stanford.

“I stood under another soft, dense rain of confetti,” she wrote. “Had I known I’d never see another Final Four as a competitor, I might have taken more careful note of my thoughts. All I remember is feeling blaze-eyed with euphoria, and yet snow-blinded by all the colorful paper that drifted around me.

“Those fluttering bits of brightness seemed so reflective of the countless inspired moments our players had given me, a great torrent of victories. More than three decades of potent emotions seemed to be cascading down on my head all at once.

“Up on the rim of the arena, a huge rainbow-lit LED display read, ‘And then there was Tennessee.’ ”

PHOTOS: Summitt through the years