Of the countless high points within Pat Summitt’s legacy, one stands above the rest.
Summitt’s dominance as a basketball coach and her elevation of the Tennessee program in particular and women’s sports in general into the national sporting conscience had unintended consequences that, really, were kind of the whole point all along.
When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, female athletes were just not normal. Women in sports were a curiosity.
“She’s really fast for a girl” or “she doesn’t play like a girl” were the chauvinist standard every time someone like Wilma Rudolph or Chris Evert or Martina Navratilova came along. But female athletes like that, while exceptional, remained the exception.
Even after Title IX became the law of the land in 1972, it was another dozen years or so before women’s sports in America (at least outside the Olympics) began to take off.
I remember sitting down in front of the TV at my brother in law’s grandparents’ house to watch my first women’s basketball game in 1984. Actually, I sat down to watch the phenomenon of Cheryl Miller and USC, and she was mesmerizing.
The old folks in the room wondered what the heck was wrong with me, what compelled me to watch a bunch of girls play basketball.
But I knew something about Cheryl Miller was different. She was 6-foot-2 and smooth and athletic, better than any high school boy I had ever seen, as good as some college guys. On a few trips down the court, she looked to my 14-year-old eyes like she could play in the NBA.
Miller and the Trojans won their second consecutive NCAA championship that day, beating Tennessee and coach Pat Summitt.
The NCAA women’s tournament had begun only two years before.
Although Summitt had coached Tennessee to 175 victories in her first seven seasons in Knoxville and made the Final Four and the Elite Eight in 1982 and ‘83, it was her 1984 run to the finals to take on Miller’s defending champion Trojans that really launched Summitt’s ascension to the top of the college basketball world.
The Vols made the Final Four two years later, then won the national championship, then another Final Four, then another title, then another title, then another runner-up, then three consecutive NCAA crowns.
In 2003 — just five years after Summitt won her three in a row in 1996-97-98, and the year Connecticut won the second of its three straight titles — every game of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament was televised.
Twenty years earlier, it was barely even a sport.
Throughout the ‘70s, women set new sporting standards: first female jockey, first girls in Little League baseball, first women’s pro football league, first woman to summit Mount Everest, first woman to circumnavigate the globe, first woman to race in the Indy 500, first woman to sign with an NBA team.
Now, the U.S. women’s national soccer team outdraws their men’s counterparts in both spectators and game day revenue.
Summitt’s true legacy isn’t in the championships won, or even in the countless lives she directly touched in Knoxville.
It was simply in popularizing the idea that women’s sports could be a valuable commodity; that, if played at a high level, women’s sports could be fun to watch.
According to The Sport Journal, participation in women’s college athletics went from 15 percent at the advent of Title IX in 1972 to 43 percent in 2001. In high school, the numbers swelled 840 percent, from 295,000 in 1971 to 2.8 million in 2003. In ’72, universities offered only 2.5 women’s sports on average. By 2004, that number climbed to 8.3.
The NCAA began sponsoring women’s sports in 1981 — seven years after Summitt became a 22-year-old head coach at UT — and today the NCAA sponsors 40 women’s championships.
Summitt was a pioneer warrior, a trail blazer who washed her team’s uniforms and put on bake-sale fundraisers to pay for trips and drove the bus on those trips and refused to believe that women playing sports were not normal.
Because of visionaries like Pat Summitt, millions of young women saw that it was socially acceptable (and actually became quite cool) to play sports.
Because of Pat Summitt, millions of young women grew up dreaming of playing sports in college.
Because of Pat Summitt, millions of young women got college scholarships to play sports.
And because of Pat Summitt, those young women took their college education and changed the face of America.
Now that’s a legacy.