On December 7, 1974, I attended a basketball game at Alumni Gym, a then 50-year-old building on the campus of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The old gym had once been the home of all campus sporting events and major concerts. Van Cliburn had once performed there to a capacity crowd of more than 3,000 people.
I was a senior at UT at the time, and the basketball game I attended that evening was between the Tennessee Lady Vols and Mercer University. It was the very first college basketball game coached by Pat Head, later to become known as Pat Head Summitt. I had read in the student newspaper, the UT Daily Beacon, that the University had hired Pat Head as its women’s basketball coach after her All-American basketball career at UT Martin.
I had grown up watching girls’ high school basketball in West Tennessee, and enjoyed it even though the girls playing at that time were limited to a half-court game and could not play full-court basketball.
My Aunt Ruth Haynes Haltom had been an All State girls basketball player at Huntersville High School just outside of Jackson, and I proudly regarded her as the greatest athlete in the history of my family. With this background, women’s basketball was not something new to me. I wanted to be present for the first night when a legendary West Tennessee female basketball player would begin coaching the Lady Vols.
I had no trouble finding a seat in Alumni Gym that night. It wasn’t exactly standing room only. The announced attendance was 51. Years later Coach Summitt would laughingly recall the small crowd that night, saying, “We had a courtside announcer to introduce the starting line-ups over the gym’s PA system. But when I saw how few folks were in attendance, I thought that maybe we just have everyone in the arena crowd stand up and introduce themselves as if it were the first day of class.”
The Lady Vols lost that night to Mercer by a single point, 84-83. They would not lose many more games during Pat Head Summitt’s era as Lady Vols head basketball coach. In fact, over the next 38 years under her coaching, they would win 1,098 games and eight national championships.
For the rest of my senior year, I returned to Alumni Gym for every Lady Vols’ home game, as the crowds grew from 51 to a few hundred.
After graduating from UT, I remained a loyal Lady Vols fan, returning from my hometown of Memphis back to Knoxville a few times each winter to see them play. As Pat Head Summitt kept coaching the Lady Vols to victories, the crowds kept growing and the Lady Vols soon moved out of the old Alumni Gym and into Stokely Athletics Center. On a memorable night in 1978 more than 6,000 fans packed into Stokely to see the Lady Vols beat 3-time National Champion Delta State, earning Tennessee it’s first-ever number 1 national ranking.
And then by the 90s, the Lady Vols were winning national championships and playing before thousands in Thompson Boling Arena on a basketball court that would eventually be named “The Summitt.”
In the process, Pat Head Summitt was doing more than building a great basketball program at the University of Tennessee. She was building women’s college basketball all across the country. Before her time, Title IX had been just a law on a piece of paper. But Pat Head Summitt made it come alive for women on basketball courts across America.
Sadly, Coach Summitt died in 2016 from complications from early-onset Alzheimers disease. She was only 64 years old.
This past weekend I watched the NCAA Women’s Final Four Championship game between LSU and Iowa. It was played in the American Airlines Center in Dallas before a capacity crown of nearly 20,000 fans. But a lot more than 20,000 people watched the game. ESPN announced on Monday that the game drew an average of 9.9 million viewers, making it the most watched women’s basketball game in NCAA history. The peak audience was actually 12.6 million people.
Yes, I was one of just 51 people watching Pat Summitt’s first game as the Lady Vols coach nearly 50 years ago. On Sunday I was one of nearly 10 million who saw the women’s final four championship game.
This is the legacy of Pat Head Summitt. I feel her presence every time I watch a game on “The Summitt” in Thompson Boling Arena, and I felt her presence on Sunday as I joined millions in watching the NCAA Women’s Basketball National Championship game.