72 Ideas … Getting rid of the ‘big’ things

It’s funny how sometimes a random internet project of 72 ways to live simply transcends a long time passion.  Yesterday, Pat Summitt, the long time coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Vols announced she had early onset dementia  – Alzheimer’s type.  I found out the news from most people I know who follow the support in pretty rapid succession (including a Facebook message from my advisor at Hollins).  I was at work and I thought, really? Pat Summitt?  I mean, she is one of the reasons Title IX worked.  Title IX became law in 1972.  Pat Summitt became the head coach of the Lady Vols in 1974: as a full-time graduate student at UT.  Yup.  You read that right: she was the head coach at a time when the NCAA didn’t recognize the sport, when players split scholarships among sports (odd tid bit, long time UT assistant Holly Warlick one of the best point guards to play the game, was on a track scholarship at UT), when the coaches did the laundry, drove the van and took classes.  Summit wrote about how she knew she could demand equality for what the men’s program had but she asked for what she needed and built her program.

The list of accolades and accomplishments fills books: every player who has stayed for 4 years has graduated.  100% graduation rate in a 37 year career.  She won an Olympic medal in Montreal (she rehabed an ACL tear while coaching AND preparing for the Olympics) and she coached the US team to its first gold in Los Angeles.  She has more wins in the NCAA tourney (109) – no other school has appeared IN 100 games.  Yes, UConn, Baylor, and a few other programs might have been a bit better over the past few years.  But as John Wooden was to men’s hoops, Pat Summitt is to women’s athletics.

The SEC schools embraced women’s athletics: Alabama, Georgia compete routinely for national gymnastics titles, Florida, Georgia compete for swimming/diving titles, Arkansas dominates the cross-country circuit.  And when you think that 8 NCAA titles in 28 NCAA tourneys?  Only UNC women’s soccer is better in domination of a sport year in year out.

Pat could have coached a few more years and called it a career.  She didn’t.  She spoke up.  She spoke out.  She will raise awareness.  Women, young women and girls who have reaped the benefits of Title IX (and that would be all of us under 50) owe her a debt of gratitude.  She was one of the pioneers of women’s sports. She taught us that we can fight on the court like guys and not lose our “feminine” identity.

More than all accomplishments on the court, yesterday she did one of the most courageous acts a public figure could do: she made it known that she will lose what has made her great.  She let go a lot of the big things that hold many of us back: fear and shame.  The road ahead for Pat and her family will be hard, but in many ways much simpler.  She openly addressed her diagnosis.  Maybe UT won’t land as many blue chip recruits, maybe they will.  But hopefully the road for Pat and her family will be a bit easier knowing that the Knoxville community, the women’s basketball community and a host of fans will support her in any way possible.

Millions of families who have a loved one with Alzheimer’s or who have lost a person to the disease can find a sliver of hope in the increase in awareness this will bring.  And true to her years of teaching, Pat Summitt is facing head on and not letting the fear, the anger, the embarrassment quiet her.  May we all be so courageous.

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