I write and speak in a world that is overstuffed with hyperbole and overreaction.
We declare somebody the greatest, only to strip them of that title sometimes in a matter of days based on ever-changing results and circumstances.
And we do it with everything in the sports world – teams, players, and especially coaches.
So I’ve struggled while trying to put the career and the legacy of Pat Summitt into perspective as news of her failing health came out out over the past few days and then ultimately she passed away on Tuesday morning after a five-year battle with dementia.
Calling her “the greatest” seemed to ring a bit hollow because of the way that we in the sports world have watered down that term.
But the more I looked at what she did, listened to those who knew her best and considered all she truly did in her 64 years, no other description worked. She truly was the greatest coach we’ve ever seen.
Immediately, some of you have alarms going off thinking of names that range from Wooden to Lombardi to Walsh to Shula to Krzyzewski to Bryant to Jackson and many others that should be in the conversation. And all of them, and many others, certainly have a case. The point isn’t to diminish what they’ve done.
Even within Summitt’s own sport of women’s college basketball, Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma has surpassed Summitt’s title count and will, in all likelihood, overtake her as college basketball’s all-time winningest coach at some point in the next few years.
You can’t, however, watch Auriemma climbing up to cut down the nets without imagining Summitt there holding the ladder below. And that’s one of the reasons why she transcends all others in her profession.
Nobody else built their area of the sport like Summitt did, and then hung around enough to spend that much time on top of it. That’s exactly what she did in women’s college basketball.
Summitt was women’s college basketball. She is women’s college basketball. And everything that’s accomplished in the sport in the future will be built on her efforts.
Her career saw her begin by driving the team van, washing the team’s jerseys and working in complete obscurity. By the end, her team and her sport was viewed by millions around the nation every year, nationally televised and had changed the lives of many who, just decades earlier, weren’t even granted scholarships.
If there’s a coach that’s accomplished more, I’d love to hear about him or her.
Furthermore, she did it all with class, dignity and an attention to things bigger than basketball that many coaches only give lip service to. Every player she had graduated. Let that soak in for a minute.
Her name and her program became synonymous with hard work, doing things the right way and success. And Summitt was right in the middle of it, always demanding more, but also treating everybody around her with respect. She’d built an entire program, an entire sport and an unmatched legacy, but you’d never know it being around her.
If you asked her about all her accomplishments, she would be most proud of the lives she changed, the players she graduated and the son she raised. The wins, the records, the titles and all the on-court accolades were more of an offshoot of everything else that she’d done.
So while we debate, analyze and often come to hasty decisions about who the greatest is, Summitt likely wouldn’t have cared about those conversations. She would’ve been focused on who she could help, how she could improve, how she could make her team, her program, her sport and her world a better place.
In that area and many others, there’s no question remaining – Pat Summitt was the greatest we’ve ever seen.