Nate: Today we’re talking about the book, “Sum it Up: 1,098 Victories, a Couple of Irrelevant Losses, and a Life in Perspective”. It’s a biography of the University of Tennessee’s great basketball coach, Pat Summitt, who is the all time leader in wins by a Division I basketball coach.
Dave: I found myself laughing out loud several times at some of the stories she tells in this book. She grew up as a country girl from Tennessee, and it was interesting to see how she went from a tough girl on the farm to one of the most successful basketball coaches in history. She got the work ethic she imparted as a coach from her father, and her childhood growing up working on a farm.
Nate: And you can see that intensity and no excuses attitude her father had in her coaching style. She was so intense and relentless with her players – she actually had to tone it down after her first couple of years because she realized she was being a little too hard on them.
Dave: Another thing that was interesting about the book was that it gave you a who’s who of women’s college basketball, and you have the opportunity to see the rise of women’s basketball. She was really at the cusp of women’s basketball becoming prominent and was one of the pioneers.
Nate: Her career basically shadowed the rise of the game’s popularity and exposure, and likewise the rise of women’s athletics in general. You see how when she started playing, the players, coaches and teams had virtually nothing.
Dave: In fact, when she played college ball at Tennessee-Martin they had to basically make their own uniforms.
Nate: Right. It was pretty bare bones. And if the men’s team wanted to practice while the women were scheduled to practice they could just tell them to leave and they could have the court.
Dave: But that all started to change as Summitt’s career got underway. It was slow, and sometimes painful, but change came, and she was definitely one of the people that made it happen. And now women’s basketball is relevant, widely attended and televised. Young people won’t remember that you rarely saw a women’s college basketball game on television thirty years ago – maybe the national championship game – but that’s the way it used to be. The excellence of her teams helped to change that.
Nate: And like you said, you get to meet some of the other pioneers in this book too. I thought it was interesting how she learned so much from Billie Jean Moore, and considered her one of her most influential mentors. For those who don’t know, Billie Jean Moore is from Topeka, is also one of the most influential and successful women’s basketball coaches in history, and is a member of the Topeka Sports Hall of Fame.
Dave: And then there are the big names she developed. The coaching tree that she has grown has more than seventy names on it.
Nate: It seemed like in every chapter she was competing against a team that had one of her former players as a coach. Former Tennessee players are all over the women’s basketball world, either as assistant or head coaches. I was kind of reminded of Vince Lombardi a bit with how hard she pushed her players, but the players who stuck it out really found themselves and felt like they were better people for having been coached by her.
Dave: And like Lombardi, she knew which players she could push, and how far. Good coaches know their players, and what they need to succeed – and she epitomized this.
Nate: What were some of the stories she told that you enjoyed?
Dave: My favorite was the story of how she was recruiting one of the top high school girls in the country and flew on a recruiting trip to see her when she was nine months pregnant, even though she was due to give birth any day.
Nate: Yes, that was a good one. And she goes into labor while on the trip, so they have to quickly fly back.
Dave: And the pilots wanted to land in Virginia so they could get her to a hospital as quickly as possible, but she refused because she hated Virginia due to the fact that the University of Virginia beat Tennessee to go to the Final Four a few years earlier.
Nate: What a story. I found myself laughing out loud during that one as well. And I don’t think anything epitomized the drive to succeed she had like this story, because who would go on a recruiting trip when you’re nine months pregnant? Amazing.
Dave: Getting back to how things changed during her tenure at Tennessee, it’s really amazing to see how things were when she arrived at Tennessee, and compare it to how things were when she left. It was like night and day.
Nate: Agreed. When she got there they didn’t have much of a locker room, she had to do the team’s laundry, as we said, the men’s team could kick them off the court whenever they wanted to, and they had to drive in vans to away games.
Dave: And when she left, the court was named after her, and the only basketball team that mattered at the University of Tennessee was the Lady Vols. Many of the other inequities were gone as well. And a lot of that had to do with her efforts to change things, and the fights that she put up to get those changes made.
Nate: But even with all the success she had, all the National Championships and Final Fours, nothing was ever more important to her than her son.
Dave: Exactly. That’s a part of this book that I enjoyed as well. Her relationship with her son, how important he was, and how she tried to make sure she brought him up the way she thought was right. And really, one of the main reasons I picked the book up had to do with the circumstances surrounding her early retirement. She was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s and had to leave the game because she just couldn’t do what she needed to do as a basketball coach anymore.
Nate: And to have it happen when she was, in every other way, still able to coach.
Dave: Right, physically she was fine, and was still at the top of her game. And only being in her sixties, she likely still had several years left to coach. But she’s attacked the disease head on and doesn’t hold back at all when talking about how it’s affected her and what she plans to do to fight it. You can hear a lot of hope in her words as she lays out her game plan to defeat it, just like any other opponent on the basketball court.
Nate: After reading the book, you can see it’s the way she’s approached everything in her life, so it’s not too surprising she’s attacking her illness that way as well.
Dave: Overall, I thought it was a great biography – and we both highly recommend it to anyone.