Pat Summitt tormented her University of Tennessee Lady Volunteer basketball players. During her 38-year tenure, she scared them, yelled at them, broke them down psychologically and physically, and made them cry. She amounted to a scary sight on the sidelines and an angry, blue-eyed glare that burned through people. She did this to get the most of their potential, and because she detested losing. Her methods got results. She led her teams to eight NCAA national championships and 1,098 wins-the all-time record for women's basketball.
But there's much more to her story than just being tough, super-competitive, difficult to play for, and hard-edged. I found this out reading her new memoir titled Sum It Up. She is now 61 and about three years ago was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. After coaching one more year after learning the news, she coached one more year before retiring. In her candid and reflective book, she writes about the disease, which is now in a mild to moderate stage of progression:
Have you ever walked along a shoreline, only to have your footprints washed away by the turf? That's what Alzheimer's is like. The waves steadily erase the marks we leave in the sand, all the sand castles. Some days are better than others-the waves come in and they recede, bringing a fog with them that sometimes clears.
Because of her illness, Summitt was given some assistance with the book, particularly relying on assistant coaches, players and others to fill in details about her life stories that she can no longer remember. The book chronicles her life, starting as a girl growing up and working daily on a Tennessee farm, to her coaching methods, to virtually everything else in between. For instance, she explains her coaching philosophy:
The standard conventional coaching manual says you don't "embarrass" players in front of their teammates, but I disagree. Here's why: Dishonest teams don't win the big one. They cover up their losses with rationalizations and excuses that soothe their eggshell egos, and they keep making the same mistakes. But the truly ambitious teams find relief in honesty when they've lost, because it's the diagnostic tool that leads to a solution-here's what we did wrong and let's fix it so we don't ever have to feel this way again. Great teams explain their failure; they don't excuse it.
The three best words to describe how she treated her players are demanding, blunt and manipulative. Throw mean and intimidating in there also. She would push her players to their psychological breaking points, tell them how bad they were playing over and over. Not big on compliments, she comes across as borderline ruthless sometimes. She conveys the story of one run-in with her player who wasn't performing up to the level Summitt wanted. The conversation went like this:
"I don't' know why you don't respect me, Abby," I said. But you've hurt me worse than any player ever has." "I'm sorry," the player said. "I just want to apologize." "I don't accept your apology," Summitt said. "I'm not gonna accept it. Maybe I'll accept it by the end of the year. But right now you need to get out of here." Abby backed out of the room, leaving (Summitt) alone with Mickie and Holly (her assistant coaches). "Pat, I thought you were going to hit her," an assistant said. "I wish I could," I said.
Her life-long desire to impress her father, a Tennessee farmer, and win his appreciation and love lie at the core of Summitt's rarified drive. He never hugged her who told her he loved her until she was 43 years old, a fact Summitt admits bothered her. When he died a few years ago, she wrote about her desire to make him proud:
When you spend your whole life trying to please someone, and then they are gone, you don't know who to please anymore.
Summitt also revealed her side of the story regarding her relationship with Geno Auriemma, her arch-rival coach of the University of Connecticut women's basketball team. For the first several years in the 1990s their interpersonal dynamic had been competitive but relatively cordial, she writes. The two teams were the nation's two best women's basketball programs. But the relationship soured because of Geno's unfair recruiting of players and his sometimes annoying remarks. She wrote:
Geno always liked to make barbed remarks, but it seemed to me that from 2000 on he had an ungenerous edge. Oddly, the more success UConn had, the more Geno seemed to resent Tennessee. In the summer of 2001, there was a bafflingly rude encounter when we were at different tables in the same restaurant, and he made me so uncomfortable by shouting my name derisively that I left the premises.
When she decided to end the pact in which Tennessee and UConn would play a regular season game each season, she said to him:
Geno, you and I both know we aren't playing by the same rules (she meant in recruiting practices). The conversation only lasted a minute or so more. It mainly consisted of him saying that he hoped to see us in the NCAA tournament so ???I can kick your ****.'
To be fair, Summitt credits Geno with expressing his support to her when he learned of her illness, and donating money to the cause for finding a cure to the disease.
In several parts of the book Summitt's softer sides reveal themselves. These make her more likeable and sympathetic and balance her more abrasive personality traits. One is her affection for her son, Tyler, who attended her practices as an infant and was involved in the program constantly thereafter. He grew up being with the team daily including on road trips. She writes:
There is one thing I am prouder of than all else, than the eight (national) titles, 1,098 victories, lifetime achievements, medals, Halls of Fame, All-Americans, Olympic teams and graduation rates (100 percent of her players graduated). My greatest achievement is my son. He is the greenest and most beautiful branch on the Summitt coaching tree.
Yet even with her son she preached feistiness. One day in elementary school her son got in a fight. This was her reaction:
That night I had a talk with Tyler. But I wasn't quite the one he expected. "What do you do if someone pushes you?" I said. "What?" he asked. "You push back," I said firmly.
As the book ends Summitt reflects about where she is in life and what it has all meant.
Whether it's managing athletes, losing a parent, breaking a marriage, dislocating a shoulder, or being diagnosed with Alzheimer's, we're not here to be completely satisfied. Nor are we in command-not even of our bodies. We borrow, we don't own. I know that everything I've been given came as gifts from God, and he has a way of reminding us, "This is my work." God's plan is a mystery to me. I know just that I was given certain work to do, and I know that the world is a creation masterpiece in which he doesn't play one note or use one color. It's not all primary colors-there are sharps and flats. Where I am concerned, he is playing on the black keys, and I'm resigned to that.
Describing her illness, she writes:
I can't size up the court of ten players anymore, see the clock out of one eye and the shifting schemes of opposing players with the other, and order up a countermove by hollering "Five" or "Motion." But I can suggest that people with mild to moderate states of dementia have more abilities than incapacities. I can suggest that just because certain circuits of memory or swiftness or synapses may fail, thought and awareness and consciousness do not...I can make myself useful, working in some capacity every day for as long as I'm able. Someday, I suppose I'll give up, and sit in the rocking chair. But I'll probably be rocking fast.
...As of this writing-the Fall of 2012-my memory is still sound enough. Which is not to deny that, despite my best effort, I've felt serious effects of the disease. Some days it's as though my mind is buried in a cloud bank. Others days the cloud recedes. There are places in these pages where friends had to take over the storytelling...God doesn't take things away to be cruel. He takes things away to make room for other things. He takes things away to enlighten us. He takes things away so we can fly.
When I started reading this book, I didn't expect the journey to take me to the place at which I arrived. I ended up liking this woman. I thought she yelled at her players for her own selfish gains to be regarded as the greatest women's basketball coach ever. Having read about why she was so hard on her players, I think she did it to make the girls get more out of themselves than they thought they could, to strive for their potential. Being brutally honest with them was painful for all involved. But she was preparing them for the difficulties and challenges they would face later in life. She was preparing them for life.
This hard-charging, complicated, and admirable lady expresses in the book her concerns that she may have been too hard on her players. It bothered her when she got man, she writes. She treated them well in many ways, often cooking dinner at her home for the players-whatever they wanted-and having former players in her house when dealing with difficulties or just needing a friend to talk to. The true test of what kind of person she was is what her players thought of her after they left the program, not necessarily when on her team and being pushed to their psychological and physical limits. Not all, but virtually all, turned out to love the woman and came back to Tennessee to visit with her. They appreciated what Summitt taught them. Although it may not have been obvious when they played for her, beneath her tough exterior she possessed a warm heart.