Commentary

Born to coach

Tyler, Pat Summitt's son, says taking care of Mom helped prepare him for new job

Originally Published: April 29, 2014
By Chris Jones | ESPN The Magazine

Tyler SummittIllustration by Mark MatchoCan a 23-year-old really revive a storied women's basketball program?

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WHEN TYLER SUMMITT was hired in early April as the new head coach of Louisiana Tech's women's basketball team, he had long known, of course, that one of his first orders of business would be a news conference. Just 23 years old, the only child of Tennessee legend Pat Summitt took his place behind a podium, looking exactly like a man who was living out a moment he had forever imagined. A Louisiana Tech pin was in his lapel; his red-and-blue-striped tie had been perfectly knotted. He said all the right things, speaking as though he were reading from a script. In more ways than one, he was. "I wrote that speech two years ago," he says today. "I just had to put the finishing touches on it."

It's often unfair to say that someone was born to do something. It draws down on hard work; it confuses determination with fate. But if Tyler Summitt was not born to coach basketball, then there is no such thing as destiny. He can remember his mother holding him in one hand while she cut down nets with the other. "My friends grew up wanting to be policemen or firefighters," he says. "I always wanted to be a coach." By high school, his apprenticeship had become more formal. He watched his mother work and began taking notes that he estimates fill 5,000 pages, on everything from how to conduct a team meeting to how to speak to referees. He is a man of deep faith, but he has two bibles.

Like every believer, he has been confronted with doubt. He played basketball in high school and for two years at Tennessee -- perhaps paying more attention to his coaches, Bruce Pearl and Cuonzo Martin, than to the ball -- and opposing fans rarely failed to remind him how they thought he got there. He can still hear entire arenas chanting "Mama's boy, Mama's boy" whenever he had a touch.

In the hours after he was introduced at Louisiana Tech, he heard different versions of the same refrain, his name now less of a target than his youth. (He has already hired veteran assistant Mickie DeMoss, who spent 20 seasons by Pat Summitt's side; she was even in the delivery room when Pat gave birth to Tyler. "Whether that shows how young I am or how close we are, I have no idea," he says.) UConn's Geno Auriemma, not surprisingly, took one of the opening shots. "That's just a tall task for a 30-year-old, much less a 23-year-old," he said. Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw was more direct: "Most people have been assistant coaches for a long time when they get the head-coaching job," she said. "It's a very difficult transition, and I don't think I would have been prepared for that at 23."

Summitt doesn't take much prodding to counter. Never mind that his mother was 22 when she started coaching Tennessee, or that Phog Allen was 22 at Kansas, or that Bobby Knight was 24 at Army. "I feel like I've been an assistant coach my whole life," Summitt says, even though his only formal experience came during the past two years as an assistant at Marquette.

The day he got that job, his mother announced she was leaving hers because of early-onset Alzheimer's. Tyler Summitt didn't dismiss the timing as a coincidence. For him it was another sign. It also marked the beginning of a second, more accidental apprenticeship -- no longer serving his mother the coach, but his mother in need. His parents are divorced, and he became the principal manager of Team Summitt, looking after her considerable legal, financial and medical requirements. "I think that's helped me take on that CEO mentality," he says. "I'm ready for this."

He faces a challenge that would be difficult for even a more traditionally experienced coach. Louisiana Tech was once Tennessee's fiercest rival. He can remember riding the Vols' team bus onto the crackling campus, the familiar electricity in the air around his mother. Now the women's game has changed, and the Lady Techsters, coming off the first two losing seasons in their history, are in need of a savior. "I know I'm here for a reason," Summitt says.

If he were anyone else, it would be hard to believe that he'd found his way so soon. But Tyler Summitt is that rare 23-year-old who looks down at the speech he always knew he would give and thinks: at last.

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Chris Jones is a feature writer for ESPN The Magazine. He is also a Writer at Large for Esquire.

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