By George Solomon
Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism
(Reprinted from the Povich website.)
What many people did not know about Pat Summitt, who died Tuesday at age 64 from early onset dementia, was how hard she tried to sell the game of women’s college basketball.
That she won 1,098 games at the University of Tennessee, most by any college coach, man or woman, seemed almost secondary to how she spent a lifetime trying to interest sports fans in her game.
Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins, who wrote three books with Summitt and was a close friend, would bring Summitt into the sports department of The Washington Post whenever Summitt was in D.C. for a coaches’ meeting or game against George Washington University.
Summitt loved to push the individuals on her team, or the game itself, and would enjoy the give-and-take with sports journalists. “Would it hurt to give the Maryland or GW women more than a paragraph and box score?” she would needle. “What’s the harm?”
For years Summitt would bring her talented, highly rated Vols to the GW’s Smith Center to play Joe McKeown’s Colonials. The Colonials usually would play the superior Volunteers well, losing at the end, but exciting the Washington fans.
“Pat Summitt left a legacy that will never be forgotten,” said McKeown in a statement. “Pat was a great friend, a legend, a mentor and a pioneer for women’s sports, her impact goes far beyond the athletic world. She did so much for so many. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to be around her, to compete against her and to learn from her.”
The same two teams would play the following year in Knoxville, with Tennessee winning comfortably. After these games Summitt would stay until the last question was asked and then she’s ask some questions of her own.
“Why come to D.C?” Summitt was often prodded. “Because it’s the capital of the country and maybe some people will enjoy what we show them,” she replied, with a twinkle in her eye. “We can play; GW can play. We get a good crowd, and some of the fans will come back if they liked what they saw.”
Summitt was funny, feisty, competitive and tough. She knew many people looked down at women’s basketball and it upset her. She cared about her sport and knew how to sell.
She knocked on doors, made telephone calls and made it her business to know the writers and broadcasters. She remembered names; not all do.
But she liked Sally Jenkins most, who like Pat Summitt was funny, feisty, competitive and tough. Summitt could coach. Jenkins could write. They were a perfect match, broken up much too soon.
Read More: Visiting Professor Kevin Blackistone writes about Pat Summitt in the Washington Post. He says “Pat Summitt earned respect for women’s sports, but we still aren’t giving it.”