On a hungover post-football Sunday morning at the University of Tennessee, the Lady Vols are circled at center court, sweat dripping, their coach in the middle.

Tall women, most of them, holding basketballs on their hips, they have about them the aspect of beautiful big puppies, long-legged and large-pawed, at once doe-eyed and intense. Their season is due to open the next day, an exhibition against a team of Swedish All-Stars. The stands rise empty from the old wooden floor to the vaulted ceiling. The coach’s voice rains quietly over the group, more of a heart to heart than a lecture.

“Not everybody’s ready to play,” says the coach, Pat Head Summitt. A farmer’s daughter who grew up in Henrietta, TN, population 101, she has a heavy drawl. During this fall of 1989, Summitt is 37 years old. In the last 13 years, she’s led her teams to the NCAA Final Four 10 times, has won twice. By the time she is through, claimed by Alzheimer’s this week at the age of 64, she will lead her teams to more victories than any other coach in college basketball history, man or woman, winning 84 percent of her games and eight NCAA Championships.

A coach with a head for strategy, a woman with a knack for nurturing, Summitt climbed to the top ranks of coaching by employing an enchanting and effective mix of hardball and heart pull.

On the eve of her first game in this new season, Summitt stands on the hardwood in her pink Converse warm-ups, feet planted wide as if she’s playing defense, hand holding an elbow behind her back, shoulders squared, chin stern. The fine lines around her eyes are turned downward, a hint of consternation.

Though she is the coach of the defending NCAA women’s basketball champs, and last year’s Naismith Coach of the Year, every season is a new one. The Associated Press and USA Today have ranked the Lady Vols number one, but Summitt has lost three key players to graduation. She knows that the competition is closing, that her team is young and inexperienced. Every year it happens: The seniors graduate, the freshmen come in, and she and her staff have to start all over again, figuring what recipe to use with the ingredients she has on hand. Statistics mean something to record-keepers. Winning again is never guaranteed.

“Going into this game,” Summitt says, looking at her team earnestly, “I want to know how you guys feel. We have two choices: We can play to win, or we can play for experience. What do you think?”

She looks around the circle. In this era before the birth of the WNBA, she is surrounded by future luminaries. She points a finger, slightly crooked. “Kelly?”

“Play to win,” says Kelly Casteel, a 6’2” junior center.  After graduation, she will eventually go on to a job as head coach at Maryville College. More than 70 Lady Vol players, coaches and staff will go on to head coaching positions after working with or playing for Summitt.

“Jody?”

“Play to win,” says Jody Adams, a 5’4” freshman point guard who would become Wichita State’s all-time winningest basketball coach, guiding her underdog teams to back-to-back-to-back NCAA appearances and a number of conference titles.

with-player-featured

There is further agreement from Daedra “Night Train” Charles, who would go on to play for the US in the 1992 Olympics and eventually become a Vols coach. And from Carla McGee, also a future 1992 Olympian, who would go on to play for the WNBA’s Orlando Miracle. And from Dena Head, another 1992 Olympian who would play three years in the WNBA. All had the same answer:

“Play to win,” they all say.

Now Coach Summitt points to Lisa Harrison. A six-foot freshman from Louisville, Kentucky, Lisa is the new prize recruit. Last year she was both Southern High School’s homecoming queen and USA Today’s high school player of the year. Eventually she’ll go on to a nine-year career as a professional baller in the ABL and WNBA, but right now, she’s only the bonus baby. She’s new on campus. She’s majoring in Broadcasting. She might be one of the players who is not quite ready.

“Maybe we can play to win,” Harrison says sheepishly, “but give everybody a chance to get experience, too?”

Some of the girls giggle at Harrison’s answer. Summitt smiles, looks around the circle with her alarmingly blue eyes. At 5 feet 10, she’s shorter than many of her players. She takes the chiding tone of a wizened aunt.

“I think you’ll find, Lisa, that it doesn’t work that way.”

**

Back in the days when magazines were more gracious about expense accounts, I spent nearly two weeks with Pat Head Summitt and the Lady Vols. Though this 1989-90 season would not be their best—a rebuilding year as Summitt had expected; the team would go 27-6 and fail to reach the NCAA finals—the Lady Vols became NCAA champions again the following year.

Being with Summitt—who was generous enough, during my time with her, to bring me home with her to Henrietta and put me up for a night in her parents’ spare room­—it wasn’t hard to understand how this woman could eventually win more games than John Wooden. Curiously, in this time of so much boostering of the cause for women, few people outside basketball have even heard her name.

As a youngster, Summitt was called Trish by her family, the fourth of five children, the first girl, a tomboy who was extremely shy around strangers. She learned to play basketball on a lighted court in the hayloft of her family’s barn, often teaming with her brother Tommy, 6 foot 6. Her elementary school team was undefeated; Summitt was MVP. Later, in the opening game of the district high school tournament, the girl known by her coach and teammates as Bone Head would score a career high 42 points on the way to a victory.

Summitt was most proud of this: Every player who was with her on the team for the full four years left campus with a diploma.

With no scholarships available to women in 1970, Summitt attended the University of Tennessee at Martin, about two hours from home. When she started school, everybody called her Pat. A shy girl everywhere but on the court, she didn’t correct them.

Summitt went on to be team captain at Martin, and then joined the US women’s team, traveling the world. Though she blew out her knee before the ’76 Olympics, she became co-captain of that year’s silver medal team.

Around the same time, Summitt was invited to coach at UT Knoxville. At the 1984 Olympics, Summit returned as coach. And won the gold. She never looked back, spending the next 38 years at Knoxville, until the onset of the symptoms of dementia forced her retirement at age 59 with 1,098 wins and 8 NCAA championships, two fewer than Wooden.

A coach with a head for strategy, a woman with a knack for nurturing, Summitt climbed to the top ranks of coaching by employing an enchanting and effective mix of hardball and heart pull.

Yes, she could be intense; she was well known for plowing up and down the sidelines in a long skirt with heels, head forward, voice deep and booming, screaming defensive plays.

net-cutting-featured

But she was also just as well known for standing under a basket, passing balls to a sophomore center or a freshman point guard in an effort to improve their games. Once, after a tournament in Hawaii, she took the team on a picnic at a waterfall; in New York, the team was treated to a midnight van tour of the city with Summitt at the wheel.

And Summitt was most proud of this: Every player who was with her on the team for the full four years left campus with a diploma.

For Summitt and her players, the Lady Vols were never just a team: They were family, and I think this was the secret to her success. As opposed to the male-dominated world of coaching, where the American model tends to be more drill sergeant than nurturer, Summitt went another way. She cared about every player individually, took and gave from each according to their skills and needs.

“She’ll be remembered as the all-time winningest D-1 basketball coach in NCAA history,” said her son, Tyler Summitt, 25, the former head coach of Louisiana Tech University. “But she was more than a coach to so many—she was a hero and a mentor, especially to me, her family, her friends, her Tennessee Lady Volunteer staff and the 161 Lady Vol student-athletes she coached during her 38-year tenure.”

Mike Sager is a bestselling author and award-winning reporter. For more, click here.

Photos: Getty

Love the story? Hate the story? Leave us a comment.