Atop the Summitt: CHD interviews Tyler Summitt about his famous mother

Rarely has a person’s last name served as such an apt description of their entire career.  All Pat Summitt did during her championship career at Tennessee was keep climbing to unparalleled heights: her 1098 wins is the most in NCAA history and her eight NCAA titles are number two in women’s history.  She won a silver medal as an Olympic player, a gold medal as an Olympic coach, and a national COY award a whopping seven separate times.  CHD’s Jon Teitel got to chat with her son Tyler about everything his mother accomplished and everything she taught him. 

Your mother was an All-American at Tennessee-Martin: what made her choose the Skyhawks, and how good a player was she back in the day? From what I know she was a very good player. She told me stories of when the women’s game was a half-court sport featuring 3-on-3 situations. One of her coaches would sub her in and out so she could play both offense and defense. She credited a lot of her success to playing 2-on-2 in a hayloft while growing up with her three brothers.

She won a silver medal with the first US women’s national team at the 1976 Olympics: what did it mean to her to represent her country as co-captain? It was huge for her and something that she really had to work for after tearing her ACL. She still talks to her Olympic coach Billie Moore every day. It took a lot of dedication just to make the team, and the younger players relied on her for leadership

She became head coach at Tennessee at age 22: what is it like to become a head coach at such a young age, and can you imagine earning $250 per month while having to wash the players’ uniforms and drive the team van?! I cannot imagine having to do the things she did as a head coach, but am grateful to her and the other coaches back then: we owe a lot of our careers to them for paving the way. She had to teach a class and train to be a player and coach her own players, which is a whirlwind to deal with at age 22.  Fortunately, coaching came naturally to her.

At the 1984 Olympics she coached the US women’s team to a gold medal: what did it mean to her to win a gold medal? She would always draw on the Olympics as something important that she looked back on. Even now she can remember coaching in the Olympics: the memories have always stuck with her.

In the 1991 NCAA tourney title game Dena Head made a pair of free throws with seven seconds left in regulation en route to a 3-point overtime win over Virginia: why did your mom decide to switch to a zone defense in overtime and what made it so effective? She was mainly a man-to-man coach but her assistants said that she had to have a change-up.

In the 1994 NCAA tourney the Volunteers beat North Carolina A&T by a score of 111–37 (the 74-point margin remains the largest in tourney history): was she concerned about people thinking she might have been running up the score? She always coached with the perspective that every possession matters whether you are up by 50 or down by 50. Your team has to be used to playing all 40 minutes both mentally and physically.

In the 1997 NCAA tourney title game Tennessee set a Final 4 record by shooting 59.2 FG% in a 9-PT win over Old Dominion: was it just one of those scenarios where every shot they put up seemed to go in because they were “in the zone”? It was just a crazy year after winning it all in 1996. They had 10 losses during the regular season but I remember everything coming together in the tourney. A lot of people said to wait until next year when Tamika Catchings was going to be a freshman, but they were on fire in that game against ODU. We call it the “Cinderella Season”.

In the 1998 NCAA tourney they won their 3rd straight title and finished the season undefeated: do you consider that to be 1 of the best teams in women’s history? My mom told me that she had to coach less than normal that year due to all of the skill and athleticism on the team. It was a fun year because the veterans learned in 1997 that every game is important and you can always lose no matter how good you are.

She won eight NCAA titles, was a 7-time national COY, and in 2000 she was named the Naismith Basketball Coach of the Century: what made her such a great coach? One of the main things she always told me about life was to do things the right way and never cut any corners. Anyone can have a single year of success but it is hard to have continued success. She also preached to surround yourself with good people from your staff to your players.

The UConn-Tennessee rivalry featured the two coaches with the most titles in women’s history: how fierce was it and how your mom get along with Geno Auriemma? When I was growing up I would always circle Louisiana Tech on the schedule (which is ironic because now I coach there!), but eventually UConn and Tennessee turned into a great rivalry. There is no more avid supporter of the Pat Summitt Foundation than Geno: the two of them always competed hard but always respected each other.

Tennessee asked her on at least two separate occasions to consider coaching the men’s team: how close did she come to taking them up on their offer? I would say she did not come very close. She also had offers to go to the WNBA but she wanted to stay with the Vols. It is a unique situation to be at one program for your whole career: I do not know if there ever was or ever will be anything like it. There is a circle of support around the nation that considers it pretty incredible.

Her 1098 career wins is the most ever by an NCAA basketball men’s or women’s coach in any division: do you think that anyone will ever break her record? I do not know. She always deflected the congratulations she received regarding records: she just focused on her players and staff, which kept her going forward. As she always said, she does not deserve all the credit because she never scored a single point for the Lady Vols.

She retired in 2012 after being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease: how is her health these days, and how do you think she should be remembered the most? Her health is great. My wife AnDe and I just took her to the beach for Memorial Day weekend: we played golf and swam in the pool and had a great time. She goes to church every Sunday now that she does not have to coach on Sundays. I think she is someone who took the platform she was given and used it for others. Most people know her for fighting hard for women to have an opportunity in every phase of life to be as successful as men. She mentored her players and also helped me with my own career. Her foundation furthers Alzheimer’s research and she has always been very unselfish.