Earth-Shaking News about a Coaching Legend


Amidst all the hubbub of what turned out to be a rare 5.8 magnitude earthquake on the East Coast, there was news that shook me to my core.

University of Tennessee womens basketball coach Pat Summitt, age 59, has been diagnosed with Alzheimers disease.

Dementia is always cringe worthy, but there is something about it sinking its claws into someone known for strength and power that seems doubly devastating. Thats why one of the more compelling storylines in modern television was when Greys Anatomy character Ellis Grey -- a formidable and driven surgeon movingly played by Kate Burton -- fought the ebb and flow of the illness.

What struck me most about this, though, was the juxtaposition of the news about Summitt and the unfolding earthquake reports on social media and television. People connected and learned that the rumbles felt up and down much of the East Coast were indeed an earthquake and then, blessedly, that there was hardly a cut or bruise to show for it. Overreaction then kicked in and prompted me to turn off the TV. West Coast friends became amused at our drama.

In between I was reading the jarring news about Summitt and that she said this to the Knoxville News Sentinel: Theres not going to be any pity party and Ill make sure of that.

You know, I believe her. And, if its possible, I admire her more than ever for that attitude. Because, yes, the news sent chills up my arms and my first reaction was sadness. Then I kept reading, eventually getting to a piece in The Washington Post by Sally Jenkins, who co-wrote her 1998 book, Reach for the Summit.

Denial was followed by anger, Jenkins writes. For the first few weeks, Summitt would barely even discuss the subject. She told her doctors, You dont know me. You dont know what Im capable of. Finally, Summitt realized she would have to accept the diagnosis. I cant change it, she says. After a pause, she adds, But I can try to do something about it.

So she is working puzzles and math problems on flash cards, reaching out for support that requires a vulnerability that is very un-Summitt like, and plotting a structure with her storied coaching staff that will allow for maximizing what she brings as a teacher and leader while not jeopardizing the team or program as she continues to coach.

The news sent me to my bookshelves in search of an article written about Summitt in the 1990s. It was by Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith and after appearing in the magazine in 1997 it was featured in his book, Beyond the Game. The piece, called Eyes of the Storm, chronicled Summitts now-legendary recruiting trip to put then-high school All-American Michelle Marciniak in a Lady Vols uniform.

Summitts water broke while at the Marciniaks home in Allentown, Pa., but she was determined to have the baby in Tennessee and got on a plane to make it happen. Smith takes the reader through that and more in his account, but it is this passage that captures so beautifully why some of us who dont know Summitt personally are so taken with her:

This woman who never raised a placard or a peep for womens rights, who never filed a suit or overturned a statute or gave a flying hoot about isms or movements, this unconscious revolutionary whos tearing up the terrain of sexual stereotypes and seeding it with young women who have an altered vision of what a female can be.

As a sports writer -- one who was voting in the Associated Press womens basketball poll back in the 1990s -- I had my vision altered by Summitt, too. Back then I was strident and vocal in my beliefs, but learned a more quiet confidence from Summitt. Covering Rutgers in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament one year at Vanderbilt, I had the privilege of seeing, in action, four pioneering coaches Summitt, C. Vivian Stringer (Rutgers), Theresa Grentz (Illinois) and Sylvia Hatchell (North Carolina) who were all about doing. And not to take away from any of the others, but Summitts record put her in another dimension.

It is the show, dont tell aspect of Summitt that consistently inspires. The record tells the story. All-time winningest coach in NCAA basketball history of either a mens or womens team in any division. Eight NCAA national championships. Year after year after year its excellence, discipline, structure, respect. The nurturing of individual gifts while simultaneously finding a way for them to mesh into a clicking-on-all-cylinders unit. Thats just magic, again and again. Anyone whos coached a sports team will tell you how hard that is to do consistently, how much vision it takes to build the kind of program Tennessee womens basketball is.

That baby Smith wrote about Tyler Summitt -- has grown into a fine college student and had this to say to Jenkins in the wake of his mothers illness:

I followed her everywhere growing up. I followed her on bus rides, airplanes, in gyms and in locker rooms all over the country, and I thought she taught me everything she had. But she saved this lesson, to always come out and be open, to not be scared, to have the courage to face the truth like shes doing.

Where we once watched Pat Summitt to witness a formula for winning, it seems like now it will be to learn about how to live in the face of a great challenge and to feel our own mortality.

Thats some real earth-shaking news this week.

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to