All women's basketball coaches should remember June 14, Pat Summitt's birthday | Adams

John Adams
Knoxville News Sentinel

Legendary Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt would have been 69 Monday.

I can’t tell you the birthdate of any other coach, but Summitt’s June 14th birthday stays with me. My older brother was born on that date. Two of my best friends were, too.

So, I remember.

The date also should be remembered by every women’s college basketball coach. It’s that important to their sport.

Summitt won 1,098 basketball games and eight national championships at Tennessee. She built and maintained the Lady Vols program for more than three decades before she died five years ago at 64, four years after having to retire because of early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.

But Summitt won't be remembered just for winning. She helped raise money and awareness of a vicious disease that understandably turns most of its victims into recluses. It turned Summitt into an advocate even as her charismatic personality gradually was being stolen away.

It was hard to see her that way, but you had to remind yourself what she was doing and why. That made it easier.

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Nothing she accomplished on the court matched her final performance, which lasted four difficult years.

Summitt’s winning also was secondary to something else – the sport itself, which grew right along with her and has kept growing without her.

You were reminded of that when LSU hired three-time national championship coach Kim Mulkey away from Baylor last month. Mulkey’s eight-year contract will pay her an average of just under $3 million annually.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Mulkey thought about Summitt after all the fanfare of her hiring and introductory news conference, whose audience included Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards.

An undated photo of Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt.

Summitt helped change the salary structure of the sport. Mulkey knows that as well as anyone. Her first annual salary as a head coach was $125,000.

I texted her a couple of questions for this column. She was in the process of moving from Waco to Baton Rouge, but she responded in 15 minutes.

"Pat Summitt is responsible for so many great things that are happening in women's basketball today," Mulkey wrote. "Salaries are better because of her, publicity is better because of her, TV coverage is better because of her." 

Veteran coaches like Mulkey, who played for Summitt on the 1984 U.S Olympic team, experienced firsthand - and sometimes on a personal level - what a force Summitt was in the sport.

Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, who has won 11 national championships, was a longtime, high-profile rival to Summitt.  As intense as their competition was - and as frayed as their relationship could be - he never hesitated to comment on how Summitt elevated a sport that has made him a rich man. The contract he signed this spring will pay him an average of slightly more than $3 million annually for the next five years.

South Carolina’s Dawn Staley also has won a national championship and is recruiting as though she soon will win another. Her contract will pay her more than $2 million when it peaks in 2025. But don’t be surprised if she gets a new contract and a pay hike before that.

Summitt's influence on the sport wasn't lost on Staley, either.

“I can’t think of anyone whose footsteps I would want to follow other than hers,” Staley said after Summitt’s death. “She has passed the torch to all who coach. It’s now our turn to make her proud.”

Summitt hasn’t coached a game since the spring of 2012. Yet her name invariably comes up during Lady Vols postgame news conferences at Thompson-Boling Arena. Opposing coaches are still thanking her for what she did.

She couldn’t have done that by winning alone. She coached with a flair and with an awareness she was promoting programs other than her own. She was promoting an entire sport.

"She fought battles every day for all of us," Mulkey said in her text. "While younger coaches today may not have known her personally, they need to understand they are reaping the benefits because of the battles she fought."

June 14: Women’s basketball coaches - young or old - should remember that date.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or Follow him at: