The Greatest Coach You May Have Never Heard Of
Arguably the greatest coach in college history, perhaps even in the history of sports, died last Tuesday. No, I don’t mean John Wooden, who died in 2010; Dean Smith, who died last year. I don’t mean Phil Jackson, Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K), Bobby Knight, or Pat Riley, who are all still alive. I am talking about Pat Summit, the coach of the University of Tennessee Women’s Basketball team.
And yet many of you had barely, if ever, heard much about her until her death. Because she was a woman, coaching women.
I’m not saying that Summit didn’t get her accolades. Before she had to retire because of Alzheimer’s disease in 2012, Summit was the Volunteers’ coach for 38 years. During that time her teams won more games (1,098) than any coach in Division I history, male or female. She led the “Lady Vols” to eight championships. She coached the U.S. Women’s team to a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics. In 1974, as a player, she co-captained the first American Olympic Women’s basketball team, and won a silver medal. Twelve times she was chosen coach of the year. In fact the list of her awards fill a page.
Very impressive, and yet, despite all of that, Summit’s talent as a coach, as a motivator and as an inspiration goes way beyond her on-the-court achievements. When Pat Summit took over the reigns of the “Lady Vols” in 1974, at the age of 21, there was no big time women’s basketball. Just two years before that, the U.S. Congress had passed Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, a federal law that states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” and which required colleges and universities to fully fund their women’s sports programs. What made Summit great is that, one could argue, she almost singlehandedly made women’s basketball relevant, exciting and interesting. She brought a level of rigor and sophistication that had rarely been seen in the sport before. She took a sport that was an afterthought, and turned it into a powerhouse of it’s own. In doing so, she probably had a lot to do with the establishment of the WNBA and the expansion of women’s sports around the world.
Summit was not only a good sports coach. She was an amazing leader who was deeply committed to her players as human beings, the best evidence being perhaps her most extraordinary record of all: 100 percent of all student athletes who completed their eligibility in her basketball program graduated. Yes, you read that right, 100 percent! Astonishing.
And yet, despite all of that, Summit is nowhere to be found on many of the top 10 lists of coaches that you would have found on the Internet (until many were updated to include her last week). College sports fans likely have heard of her, but the average person on the street who knows of John Wooden, Phil Jackson or Bobby Knight? Probably unlikely to tell you who Summit was.
This is the challenge of the subtlety of gender bias in our daily lives. It’s not that women in today’s world do not have chances to succeed. Thankfully those chances have expanded dramatically in the past decades, though we still have a way to go in many areas (like the Presidency?). The challenge is that even when women do succeed, even in extraordinary ways like Pat Summit, they still are less valued by men, or even resented. Just as one example, a 2014 study, conducted at the Veterans Administration hospitals and published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information at NIH, found that female doctors were treated quite differently when they were put into leading CPR situations. Participants “agreed that the ideal code leader was an authoritative presence; spoke with a deep, loud voice; used clear, direct communication; and appeared calm.” Yet, when a male doctor performed them, he was likely to be seen as a great leader. When a female doctor did the same, she often had the “B” word associated with her behavior. And, perhaps even more insidiously, “female participants described feeling stress from having to violate gender behavioral norms in the role of code leader. In response, some female participants adopted rituals to signal the suspension of gender norms while leading a code. Others apologized afterwards for their counter-normative behavior.”
This is the challenge with gender bias. Even when one transcends it through behavior, the passive, unconscious messaging is still there underneath the surface, undermining the feeling of success, and the acknowledgement of that success. Correlated to this, a study sponsored by the American Psychological Association found that men are more likely to think of their successes as of their own doing, and their failures as the result of people and circumstances around them, whereas women are more likely to think of their failures as of their own doing, and their successes as the result of people and circumstances around them. Men, as a result, may feel better about themselves when they fail, then women feel about themselves when they succeed. Of late, some have taken to calling this a “Confidence Gap,” but I think it is more accurate to call it, as my friend Susan Brady does, a “worthiness gap.” It is the result of years of training that tells women they are less worthy than men in hundreds of circumstances.
I am grateful to Pat Summit. Because of her extraordinary excellence, my granddaughters think nothing less of themselves for playing soccer and basketball, or any other sport. Because of her singular achievements, they have many more female athletes as role models. Yet we all still should learn from Pat Summit’s story, that still today, we cannot take gender bias lightly.
That can be her greatest legacy.