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Legendary Tennessee Basketball Coach Pat Summitt Dies At 64


One of basketball's most successful coaches died earlier this week. Pat Summitt took over as head coach at University of Tennessee at the age of 22. And by the time she retired at 59, her teams had won more than a thousand games. Matt Shafer Powell of member station WUOT in Knoxville reflects on her legacy and a career cut short by a five-year struggle with dementia.

MATT SHAFER POWELL, BYLINE: The year was 2008, and Pat Summitt had just let her Lady Vols to the NCAA women's basketball championship again.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The Tennessee Lady Vols have won championship number eight in '08.

POWELL: Summitt was the head coach for all eight of those national championships. She was only 55 years old and intense and competitive as ever. Lady Vols fans had no reason to believe it would be the last time she would cut down the nets - but it was. Just three years later, she appeared in a video that sent a wave of shock and sadness through her legion of fans.


PAT SUMMITT: Earlier this year, the doctors at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed me with an early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, at the age of 59.

POWELL: Despite her diagnosis, she continued to coach the team, a decision explained by Summitt's boss at the time, former Women's Athletic Director Joan Cronan.

JOAN CRONAN: It made a difference in the face of Alzheimer's, and here was somebody who was facing it but yet still functioning.

POWELL: In a way, it marked a transition into Pat Summitt's second career as a highly visible spokeswoman and advocate for Alzheimer's research. As that season wore on, however, it became apparent it would be her last. Eight months later, at her home arena, she handed control of the Lady Vols to her assistant, Holly Warlick.


SUMMITT: Holly, I want you to come up here. It is now time to turn over my whistle to you.


POWELL: It was an unpredictable end to a career that took her from her family's dairy farm in middle Tennessee to the pinnacle of women's sports. During her 38 years as UT coach, she developed a reputation as passionate, focused, fiercely competitive and tough. Pity the poor Lady Vol who ended up on the business end of her trademark glare. In this 2013 interview with NPR's Linda Wertheimer, she explained her approach.


LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: Did you ever think you were too tough?

SUMMITT: Not really (laughter). You know, I think you can challenge people, but you don't want to break people down. But you've got to sometimes just pull them aside and say, you know, you're OK but you could be better.

WERTHEIMER: You have to know when to push and when to stop.


POWELL: That tough-love approach sometimes led to tears, but it also produced wins - 1,098 of them, more than any other basketball coach in Division I history - man or woman. She won more than 80 percent of her games and coached the USA to Olympic gold in 1984. She ran a clean, disciplined program, which never had a losing season. She loved being a role model for her players and for girls and women everywhere. Her message to them was consistent - push yourself harder than you think you can and never give up.


SUMMITT: Anyone can quit, but it takes a strong, committed person not to quit when times are tough. You can't have any quit in you if you want to be successful.

POWELL: Pat Summitt didn't win every game she coached, but she always fought and fought hard. Her battle with Alzheimer's was no exception. For NPR News, I'm Matt Shafer Powell in Knoxville, Tenn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Matt Powell
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