Photo courtesy of UT Athletics
Editor’s Note: The following article was published in the May 2012 issue of “Coaching Women’s Basketball” magazine shortly after Pat Summitt announced her retirement as head coach at the University of Tennessee. It remains today a testament to the positive influence Summitt had on the lives of those she touched. We are honored to share it with you again word for word as a tribute to her legacy.
By Jack Watford with
Beth Bass & Betty Jaynes
I don’t know Pat Summitt personally, but I wish I did. Because I think I would be a better person for it. I have had the opportunity to meet her though, just once, briefly, last October at the SEC Media Day in Hoover, Ala.
Summitt had just stepped down from the dais and was heading to her next round of interviews when I stopped her in the doorway. Nervously, I said, “Hey, Coach Summitt, I’m Jack Watford with the WBCA. I just wanted to introduce myself to you.” I extended my hand to her and she took it. “Nice to meet you, Jack,” she said. “You keep Beth and Betty straight over there.” And that was it. But it’s a moment I’ll remember forever.
I’m a 50-year-old man who has worked all my life in sports. I’ve met a few larger-than-life sports personalities in my time, such as George Steinbrenner, Bobby Bowden, Steve Spurrier, and most recently, thanks to my new job, Geno Auriemma. Yet, I’ve never felt quite like I did last fall in the presence of Pat Summitt – with a lump in my throat and butterflies in my stomach. It’s how I’ve imagined I would feel if I ever met the President of the United States or the Queen of England – not a coach.
Clearly, though, Summitt has become much more. And I’m not alone in my awe of her. My co-workers in the WBCA office speak of her reverantly. Last August, when she announced she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, the entire sports world collectively gasped in shock and rallied in support to her side.
Pat Summitt built the game of women’s basketball that we enjoy and have the privilege of working in today. No, she didn’t invent the game, or even lay its foundation. But she built the modern game just as surely as she built her program at Tennessee and, somewhere along the way, she transcended it.
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Beth Bass would not be chief executive officer of the WBCA if not for Pat Summitt. Not because of any strings Summitt pulled to help her get the job. Rather, Bass says, because of a life-changing opportunity Summitt presented her with many years ago.
It was September 1986 and Bass had just completed a two-year graduate assistantship in Tennessee’s athletic department helping to market their seven women’s sports, which, of course, primarily meant basketball.
“Pat had coached the U.S. Olympic Team to the gold medal in 1984, and Converse was the official shoe of the Olympics,” Bass said. “Pat was with adidas at Tennessee, and Converse had been pushing her hard to switch to their brand.
“Converse told her she would be one of their premiere women’s coaches, and that they would hire someone who she was familiar with to manage their relationship with her.”
Bass had just accepted a position with Proctor & Gamble, working for the Duncan Hinds brand in Houston. She was at her apartment, packing for the move when her phone rang. It was Summitt.
“Pat said, ‘Bass, do you really want to go and sell cookies?’ I said no, not really, but I need a job and I know I don’t want to coach,” Bass recalled. “Pat said, ‘I think I’ve got something you’d like better.’
“A week later I’m moving to Boston to work for Converse instead of Houston to work for Proctor & Gamble.”
And just like that, Bass said, Summitt changed her life.
Bass has worked in women’s sports (primarily women’s basketball), since, developing the relationships with coaches across the country that eventually led to the opportunity with the WBCA.
And through the years, her relationship with Summitt, both personally and professionally, has grown stronger.
“It’s impossible to meet her and not be impressed,” Bass said. “She has such a tremendous presence. She is so focused, so no-nonsense. But then, at the same time, she is so gracious and kind, and shows such great hospitality.”
Bass continued, “We’re talking about the most successful basketball coach of all time, and she probably would rather be at home cooking and serving you a meal. Nothing fancy, mind you, just good ol’ country cooking like she grew up on in Henrietta (Tennessee).”
Bass says that in the 28 years she has known her, Summitt has never said no to any request she has made of her.
“She continually gives back,” Bass said. “I don’t think anyone knows just how much she has helped this sport.”
As for the perception some had that she was “Pat’s girl” when she was hired at the WBCA? Not true, says Bass.
“I recall the one time in this job I have called Pat hoping she would intervene with a member on my behalf,” Bass said. “I was having a particularly difficult time with a certain powerful coach, and I thought Pat might call and talk to her for me.
“I gave Pat the background on the situation and she said, ‘That doesn’t sound like the coach I know, Beth. I think you need to reflect on this a bit, because you could have handled it better.’ ”
Bass added: “Trust me, Pat and I have locked horn on many occasions since I have been CEO, but our relationship has just grown stronger because of it.”
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Betty Jaynes, too, says she owes her career with the WBCA to Summitt, who is a “founding mother” of the association.
“It was 31 years ago that she and several other coaches met in July at Syracuse, New York, to discuss the formation of a coaches association for women’s basketball,” Jaynes said. “I was in Taiwan with USA Basketball and could not attend the meeting.
“When I returned for Taiwan, there was a message from Pat for me to call her about the Syracuse meeting. She convinced me to join the group in Pennsylvania on September 1 for an organizational meeting of what would become the WBCA.
“The meeting was so exciting! Ideas coming from everywhere about the development of this organization for women coaches,” Jaynes said. “I left Philadelphia knowing that would be my calling. If Pat had not thought enough of me to make that call, I would not have been the first executive director of the WBCA.”
Jaynes remembers watching Summitt play for Tennessee-Martin in the early 1970s. “What a work ethic!” Jaynes said.
She first met Summitt through their work together in the AIAW shortly after Summitt became head coach at Tennessee.
“I recall one year at James Madison (where Jaynes was head coach), I was having a terrible season,” Jaynes said. “Pat called and asked if I would drive to Knoxville and share with her what I was running with my team and she would help me make some tweaks.
“After I explained the players and the strategies I was using, she made five changes. Pat said, ‘Betty this is a risk, but I think it will help. After all only a coach who risks is truly free.’ I drove back to James Madison, implemented all of Pat’s suggestions, and we won the next 10 games.”
Jaynes speaks fondly of her friendship with Summitt.
“Pat loves her friends. She cares about so many folks, but her friends are a special group,” Jaynes said. “The golf trips were especially wonderful. She embraced all of us, no matter our skill level, shape or size. As long as we enjoyed being together, playing golf all day and great seafood at night, things could not be better.
“Pat will always be in my thoughts and prayers and I will never forget the personal attention she gave to me during my career in women’s basketball.”
# # #
Pat Summitt’s legacy isn’t the unparalleled 1,098 career victories or 31 straight NCAA tournament appearances or eight national championships she amassed over her 38 remarkable seasons at Tennessee.
Rather, it’s the lives of those she has touched, such as her many friends and colleagues, like Beth Bass and Betty Jaynes, as well as the countless others she has inspired who she will never know.
More importantly, it’s her 16 former players, assistants and graduate assistants who are currently collegiate head coaches, and those who one day will become head coaches, who will continue to share with aspiring coaches and players for generations to come the spirit, philosophy and work ethic that Summitt instilled in them.
While she no longer will coach women’s basketball, her influence on the game will never end.
I don’t know Pat Summitt personally, but I hope one day I will. Because I know I will be a better person for it.