Commentary

Summitt is face of Title IX generation

Originally Published: April 18, 2012
By Graham Hays | espnW

Everything and nothing changed Wednesday in Knoxville, Tenn.

News that Pat Summitt is stepping aside as head coach at the University of Tennessee to accept the role of head coach emeritus, leaving control of the women's basketball program to longtime assistant Holly Warlick, comes as little surprise precisely because it is the inverse of the shocking news that came almost a year ago, when Summitt informed the world she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. Nobody saw the former coming. Sadly, everybody saw this coming.

As Warlick took on more of the day-to-day responsibilities of running the program over the past season, it became a matter of filling in the blanks on the timing and title -- for both Summitt and Warlick -- of a transition of power. In that respect, and taking Summitt at her word in the statement released by the school that she'll remain a fixture watching practice and interacting with the players, Knoxville won't look much different in the days to come than it did in recent months.

[+] EnlargePat Summitt
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyPat Summitt is the most transcendent figure in women's team sports to leave the stage.

But in ways that might be more apparent decades rather than days from now, everything changes, from Knoxville through the Volunteer State and to courts, fields and rinks in every corner of the country.

History is a tricky thing to write as it happens, but this moment is just such a line drawn between then and now.

Summitt was the face of women's team sports for so many years, ever-present and ever-successful as athletes came and went. Girls grew up wanting to play for her. People who had never watched a women's basketball game knew her name, knew she was the one who won all the time. Nobody savors the circumstance by which the end of her coaching career occurred, the disease that shortened her time on the bench by years, if not a decade. But in leaving her chair on the sideline, she becomes the face of an era that allowed women's sports to be what they are and what they might yet be.

She is not the first great coach to exit, following in the footsteps of names like Jody Conradt or Leon Barmore, but she is the most transcendent figure in women's team sports to leave the stage.

Summitt spent 38 years on the sideline making history -- in some sense, making it up as she went along. It isn't likely, but there might come a day when a coach displaces her from atop the record books by winning more than 1,098 games. It's possible Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, her old nemesis, will win two more championships to pass her eight NCAA titles. What won't happen, what can't happen, is a head coach making $8,900 in her first season at a major university, as Summitt did when she started at Tennessee, and more than a million dollars by the end of her tenure.

No Division I women's basketball coach will begin a career fighting for practice space with physical education classes in a multi-use gym, as Summitt used to at Tennessee, only to finish her tenure at the same school in a gleaming basketball-only practice facility next to an arena that regularly welcomes more than 12,000 fans for home games on a court that bears her name.

Women's college basketball four decades from now will surely look different than it does in the present, but it might well look different in the way Knoxville looks different than it did 40 years ago -- subtle changes to a well-established foundation. What Summitt presided over and mastered was the kind of change that can come only at the beginning, when anything is possible and nothing is promised.

Given the freedom to succeed or fail spectacularly, she singlehandedly made it impossible to argue that women's sports couldn't work.

There is history enough in women's sports to fill a library. And there is space on those shelves for decades of history that predates Summitt or Title IX, stories of legends like Babe Didrikson Zaharias or generations of less heralded women like Maybelle Blair, who got on a train as a teenager in California and traveled to Chicago to play in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the 1940s. Women's sports weren't born of Title IX, a good thing lest Summitt herself never had picked up a basketball growing up in those earlier years.

[+] EnlargeBrittney Griner
Randy Sartin/US PresswirePat Summitt's impact is far-reaching, and today's generation of players -- such as Baylor's Brittney Griner -- seems to appreciate all the Hall of Famer has accomplished.

But one era of history ended and another began when it became law, at just about the same time a young woman fresh out of college started coaching the basketball team at the University of Tennessee.

Five of Summitt's former players -- the last who will be able to say that at the conclusion of their careers -- were selected in this year's WNBA draft. It is not a league without its share of issues, to be sure, but any of those players who make a roster this season will earn more for their efforts than Summitt did her first season in charge at Tennessee. And like thousands of former college athletes, they have an education to call on once basketball is out of the picture. Like hundreds of thousands of girls who play sports at some level, they have the benefits of those experiences to help them.

Three years ago I had an opportunity to sit down with Summitt for an extended interview. At one point the conversation turned to how she saw her role in the athletic world that emerged around her.

"I don't know how much I've had to do with that, but I'm proud of what's happened," Summitt said at the time. "That's the main thing. I do take a lot of pride in seeing the success of other conferences, as well as what's happening right here on this campus. And just seeing women's sports with a level of appreciation and awareness and coverage that we've never enjoyed before. So yeah, when I think about that, have we finally arrived? I hope so."

Wednesday we arrive at a different point. The point when one chapter of the history of women's sports comes to an end. And the point when a chapter that exists because of people like Summitt begins.

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