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Pat Summitt defined women’s basketball

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Pat Summitt died early Thursday. Most anyone paying even casual attention to sports knows who she was.

More than anyone, Summitt and the Tennessee Lady Vols put women’s basketball on the map in this country. Others made solid contributions, but a generation ago, she was the face of the sport.

Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma is the Pat Summitt of today’s era. No two coaches have elevated the sport more than those two.

Between them they won more than half of the 35 basketball championships since the advent of the NCAA Tournament in 1981-82. Summitt has eight of those titles and Auriemma has 11.

“She was the defining figure of the game of women’s basketball,” Auriemma told ESPN. “Lots of people coach the game, but very few get to define the game.”

When she showed up in Knoxville in the fall of 1974, Title IX was in its infancy. At that time, there was no NCAA Tournament.

The women competed within the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). Tennessee, of course, went to the first NCAA Final Four in 1982.

For 38 years she coached the Tennessee Lady Vols and, as Auriemma said, defined the game. During that time 161 young women learned the game of basketball, but just as importantly, the game of life.

Summitt and her players won 1,098 games during that span, still a record. Along with eight national titles, Tennessee won 16 SEC championships.

Out of all of those numbers involving on the court success, she was equally proud of her players’ success in the classroom. Every player who came through the Tennessee women’s basketball program left with a college degree.

All of this is why Floridians, especially those with daughters, should pause to thank her for what she meant to the sport of basketball and for the opportunities that became available for women. Think about her at the next USF, UCF, FSU or Florida women’s game.

While Summitt won 84 percent of her games and 100 percent of her players earned degrees, she met an opponent that would not be defeated. In 2011 she became afflicted with a version of Alzheimer’s that would not relent, but Coach Summitt, only 59, prepared a game plan anyway.

“Competition got me off the farm and trained me to seek out challenges and to endure setbacks,” she said shortly after her diagnosis. “And in coordination with my faith, it sustains me now in my fight with Alzheimer’s disease.”

Few fit the true definition of a legend. Pat Summitt was the epitome of the word.

RIP.

 

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Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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