Pat Summitt has always been engaging and funny with those who cross her path. And in 38 seasons as the head coach of the Lady Vols, that path got crowded as her basketball teams got better, and she started collecting national titles.
But, still, the majority of those who saw Summitt got their impressions of her from the sidelines, and those viewers saw a woman storming across their television sets with an intensity and fury that led to 1,098 wins and eight NCAA championships. Her accomplishments, outlined at the book’s end, fill three pages.
Her memoir, co-written with best-selling author Sally Jenkins, shows a side of Summitt that heretofore was primarily only seen by those who crossed that path. The book is atop the New York Times’ best-seller list this week, so the full portrait of Summitt will now be seen by thousands.
It is a book I should have read in one sitting, but I kept re-reading passages. And laughing. That may be the best part of the book – Summitt’s sense of humor. It is wicked and the image of the stern coach, while absolutely accurate, was only part of the package.
Summitt enjoyed the media. She liked to banter with writers, and she provided her home and cell numbers – and answered the calls – and became more accessible even as she became more popular and successful. She also could laugh at herself, once saying she was “just a redneck from Henrietta.”
Somewhere between Henrietta and Knoxville, she developed a taste for fine red wine. After the Lady Vols came back late in a regional final against North Carolina to preserve the 1998 undefeated season, Summitt enjoyed a fine red at 4 a.m. in Nashville, the site of the epic game.
Jenkins had written two books with Summitt – the first was a business model, the second an account of the perfect season in 1998 and the team’s third consecutive national title and sixth overall.
This one is a memoir in the true sense. It will make the reader laugh – the exploits of Holly Warlick’s teams are something the now head coach may want to cut out of any copies read by current players – and also cry. The excerpts between chapters in which Summitt discusses her diagnosis of early onset dementia are heart-wrenching.
The book is full of anecdotes from Summitt’s coaching career, but it also delves into her family life from her days as a farmhand to her marriage and eventual divorce.
Summitt’s is a remarkable story, and the coach and Jenkins capture it from the opening chapter in which Summitt details what she can and can’t remember to the final one in which her sense of humor is apparent even in a medical exam to test her memory.
Summitt’s fierce protection of her players is apparent, as is their devotion to her. She also still has a powerful effect on them. Shelley Sexton Collier tells the story of her husband teasing her that former players sit up straighter when Summitt walks in the room. She shot back that so did he.
A reader is nearly halfway through the book before Summitt wins her first national title. It is a book rich in detail of her formative years and how she slowly built the program – and consumed her share of beer while coaching, teaching and working on a master’s degree.
The book humanizes a woman that the majority of people never saw as she stalked across their television screens. Summitt let the media see that side of her – and her off-the-record stories could fill another book if she ever went on the record with them – but she did deliver one shot in the book to a Nashville columnist who said it was time for her to step aside.
It was the game last season against Vanderbilt in Nashville, and Summitt was violently ill with stomach flu. The media that had seen her all season noted she was much different that game. The columnist was told in the media workroom that Summitt was sick and usually was much more engaged. But a column appeared the next morning that Summitt had deteriorated and needed to go. Summitt was livid. Her faculties are very much intact it would seem.
This is not necessarily the book Summitt intended to write. When she would be asked by the media about some topic that was controversial – typically recruiting or why she ended the series with Connecticut in response to yet another article (it stopped after the 2007 game and the stories still appear six years later) – she would smile and say no comment. She would add that in her final book she would comment and then flash a wicked smile, the blue eyes showing not a trace of her legendary stare.
But the diagnosis shifted the focus of the book to one that solidifies who Summitt is – she and Jenkins delivered that beautifully – more so than one that scrutinized her profession. Summitt’s final season could be worth a book in itself, but it was a minor part of this story, one in which she lauded Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and women’s athletics director Joan Cronan for their support.
Summitt will be on campus this Friday from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the Tennessee bookstore, 1502 Cumberland Ave.
Go see a living legend. And take her the finest bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon that you can find.