The winningest one: University of Tennessee women s basketball coach Pat Summitt dies after an astonishing winning streak and a battle with Alzheimer's

By Kurt Pitzer
June 28, 2016 09:00 PM
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in college basketball history, has died at age 64.

Summitt, who never had a losing season in 38 years of coaching, inspired many when she continued at the helm of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball program after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2011.

Known for her glowering courtside demeanor, Summitt won eight national championships and seemed to carry her fierceness into the fight with early-onset dementia. She ended her career a year after her diagnosis, coaching the final season with the help of assistants, with an unprecedented record of winning 84 percent of her games and, importantly for her, a 100 percent graduation rate among the young women she coached.

Former Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer tells PEOPLE that Summitt “was good when things were good, but even better when things were tough.” He recalls a moment after his first losing season, in 2006, when she came into his office and closed the door. “We brown-bagged a lunch and talked for a couple of hours,” Fulmer says. “She shared her thoughts about accountability and staying the course. We were both from small towns in Tennessee, and she was always someone I listened to.”

Summitt began coaching the Lady Vols when she was 22, at a time when her teams had no money for uniforms, no dressing rooms and scant public attention. At times she drove her players to games in her own car, on the way to winning an astonishing 1,098 times. Her success helped put women’s basketball on the map, with national broadcasts and the establishment of the Women’s national Basketball Association.

She was remembered both for her steely drive with a fun-loving spirit. After former Tennessee men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl painted his body Tennessee orange for a women’s game in 2007, Summitt returned the favor by dressing as a cheerleader for a men’s game and leading the crowd in singing the school’s unofficial fight song, “Rocky Top.”

Tributes to Summitt poured in from across the college-sports community. “Today is a sad day for me personally and for everyone in the women’s basketball community,” said Summitt’s arch-rival, Connecticut Women’s Basketball Coach Geno Auriemma. “One would be hard-pressed to name a figure who had a more indelible impact on her profession… Our sport reached new heights thanks to her success, which came from an incomparable work ethic and a larger-than-life, yet compassionate, personality.”

The only woman named on Sporting News‘ list of 50 Greatest Coaches of All Time, Summitt is one of only four coaches, men’s or women’s, to have racked up more than 1,000 wins. In 2012, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama and the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY Awards.

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