Commentary

Summitt impact extends past court

Originally Published: August 23, 2011
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

If you ask someone to close their eyes and tell you what mental image appears when they hear Pat Summitt's name, you're likely to get almost as many answers as she has wins.

Arms folded, weight offset ever so slightly on one leg, face a picture of consternation as she stands on the sideline.

Smiling, one arm raised toward the crowd as she cuts down the net after one of those many championships.

[+] EnlargePat Summitt
Andrew Weber/US PresswirePat Summitt's name evokes a lot of images -- but perhaps the most memorable is her determined look and soul-penetrating glare.

The glare -- that infamous, soul-penetrating, confess-your-sins-and-take-cover look of disapproval.

There are probably a hundred more, each going at least a thousand words toward defining her, and each leaving at least as much unsaid. Like the smirk on Babe Ruth's face, the bat in Ted Williams' follow through or the space between the bottom of Michael Jordan's sneakers and the court, the images are of someone larger than life. They don't represent a moment in time as much as transcend it.

Strange as it might sound, Summitt herself doesn't even appear in the one that filled my mind today upon learning she has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. Instead, it's a snapshot image of a blisteringly hot late spring day in Knoxville, Tenn., long after basketball season had come to a close. There's a tiny grandstand of unconvincing sturdiness sitting behind a softball field tucked away beneath a busy highway, a net behind the left-field fence to protect the passing cars from home runs.

It's a picture of what Knoxville was before Summitt. It's a picture of what women's sports might still be without her.

Tennessee's softball team now plays in one of the nicest facilities ever constructed solely for the sport, Sherri Parker Lee Stadium, located a short drive around a bend in the Tennessee River from Thompson-Boling Arena. The women's soccer team has the same kind of arrangement next door -- at a school that doesn't field a varsity men's soccer team, Regal Soccer Stadium is as good as facilities get on the college level.

To suggest both fit snugly within Summitt's legacy is to take nothing away from the work co-coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly have done building the softball program into a national power or what Angela Kelly has done with the soccer program, nor for that matter to detract from the generosity of the donors who funded the facilities.

Without Title IX, there would be no Pat Summitt. But on almost any given day of any given month in Knoxville, the sights and sounds of sport suggest Title IX would not be what it is without Summitt. … What she built on a basketball court radiated out to soccer, softball and volleyball fields and courts throughout Tennessee and beyond.

They built the programs and the facilities, literally and figuratively. Summitt built the world in which they became possibilities.

Without the culture Summitt created, Weekly might not have had the chance to build a program. The softball team might still be playing at Tyson Park, the public field with the rickety stands and the big net in left field, with little reason for any stranger to be in Knoxville to see them there on that hot afternoon more than four years ago.

The first time I ever visited Knoxville was for a basketball game at Thompson-Boling, but by then Summitt had long since staked her claim as the second-most important coach on campus (or perhaps the first, if the football team lost a few too many games). All the season-ticket holders, all the orange in the stands, all the media, all the star power -- those were already on display by that point. Seeing it all, it was difficult to imagine there was ever a time when the coach didn't enter to a standing ovation, when she had to fight for practice space amidst physical education classes.

Watching Shanna Zolman shoot the ball or watching the thousands of eyes that followed Candace Parker, even as she prepared to redshirt her first season on campus, was to watch the end product. Watching Monica Abbott pitch at Tyson Park a year later was to catch a glimpse of the peril and possibility of a program's adolescence. It was to look at a child and see in them the parent.

There is something that always leaves me a little squeamish about the distinct line drawn between men's and women's sports at the University of Tennessee, from the distinct athletic departments right down to the "Lady" in the nickname. But where it would be a vestige of inferiority anywhere else, it's almost a tribute at Tennessee.

[+] EnlargeThe Summitt
AP Photo/Wade PayneThe court at Thompson-Boling Arena is named after Pat Summitt, but her efforts and women's basketball success extend to every other women's program in Knoxville.

This is a place where women's sports are secure, an entire athletic department long ago made equal by one woman. Made equal not by fiat but by win after win, championship after championship.

Without Title IX, there would be no Pat Summitt. But on almost any given day of any given month in Knoxville, the sights and sounds of sport suggest Title IX would not be what it is without Summitt. There were others. Many others. But what she built on a basketball court radiated out to soccer, softball and volleyball fields and courts throughout Tennessee and beyond, stopping only when it bumped up against the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

That Summitt has not gone unappreciated proves only that we do not always fail to recognize genius in our own time. Much as each and every tribute must make her face flush with the discomfort of someone raised to shun such things, she thankfully has experienced the love and respect universally directed her way.

Long may that continue because she is not saying goodbye.

Long may her legacy continue to grow anywhere there is a scoreboard when she eventually does.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.