ATHENS — Like many others in her sport, Pat Summitt was a thorn in the side of Andy Landers. The longtime Georgia women’s basketball coach, now retired, is already a Hall of Famer and won more and bigger than probably anybody else ever will at UGA. But he could never establish the Lady Bulldogs as the SEC powerhouse that he desired for one primary reason — because of that Tennessee juggernaut Summitt was piloting up in Knoxville.
Summitt, who won more college basketball games than any man or woman in history, died on Tuesday. She was only 64. And her demise was fast. She passed away only five years after being diagnosed with early onset dementia caused by Alzheimer’s.
Landers could never get out of Summitt’s shadow. And it’s not like he wasn’t successful. The man won 944 games (against 320 losses) over a career that started at Roane State junior college and ended after 36 seasons at Georgia. The 2007 Women’s Hall of Fame inductee led the Lady Dogs to 31 NCAA Tournaments, five Final Fours, seven SEC regular-season titles, four SEC tournament championships and 32 seasons of 20 or more victories.
Yet Summitt always won bigger. She ended her career having won 1,098 games at an incredible rate of 84 percent. She won a total of 32 SEC championships between the regular season and the conference tournament. And while Landers was never able to get the Bulldogs even one national championship, Summitt and the Lady Vols claimed eight.
Nationally, you’ll read over the next few days about the intense rivalry of Summitt and UConn’s Geno Auriemma. And while that certainly was great one on a national scale, Summitt and Landers were trading licks at least twice a year on the court and pretty much every day on the recruiting trail for three decades. Head-to-head, she was 48-15 against him.
So in a lot of ways, Summitt represented a giant boulder in Landers’ path to greatness. But as Landers explained on Tuesday, it was having to scale that boulder that made him great.
“In many ways, she brought the best out of me because of where she set the bar,” Landers said in a statement sent out by UGA on Tuesday. “I knew Pat for five years before I came to Georgia so I’ve known her for a long time. We went through a period in women’s basketball that’s very different than the period women’s basketball is in today. It was the start up. It was the beginning of Title IX. I think what she did so very well was she made people understand what the product of Title IX could be by taking Tennessee women’s basketball and building it into something that was recognized nationwide.”
Personally, I’ll always remember Summitt as being a tremendous ambassador for her sport. Publicly she was known for her intense courtside demeanor and that competitive scowl that seemed permanently affixed to her face during games. But off the court in the arena of media and fan relations, she was totally different.
I recall covering some SEC women’s tournament somewhere that I really didn’t want to be at (Gwinnett Arena, I think) and running her down in a lower concourse for a story I was working on. Not only did she stop and answer all my questions, she asked me at the end where I was from and thanked me for being there to bring attention to the event.
Talk about an instant attitude adjustment.
The real sadness here was the way she went out. There wasn’t much time for reflection or any of kind of appreciation tour. She shocked the sports world with her announcement in 2011 that she was going to continue to coach despite the diagnosis and did with the strong support of her loyal assistants. But she knew the reality of the battle she was up against.
Landers, who is a year younger than Summitt, talked to her about it shortly after the announcement when he was getting inundated with requests for comment.
“I remember calling her because people were calling me when the news broke and I asked her ‘How do you want to frame this? How should I answer questions?'” Landers shared. “She said ‘It is what it is. It’s dementia. It’s the fast-moving kind. I’m going to fight it with everything I’ve got. But that’s what it is, and that’s what we’re going to call it.’ That was typical of Pat Summitt recognizing the challenge as it is and meeting it head-on.”
In true Summitt form, she founded the Pat Summitt Foundation to raise money toward finding a cure for Alzheimer’s and it has brought unprecedented attention to that awful disease in this area of the country. In many ways, her death Tuesday will bring it even more.
It certainly got Landers to thinking.
“Having retired a year ago – and trust me, this isn’t something I do every day; I don’t sit and look through scrapbooks and try to remember things – but it does become more obvious to you the quality of work that you’ve done, the lives that you’ve touched and the people that you’ve influenced,” Landers said. “I regret that Pat didn’t have an opportunity to look in that rear-view mirror and see all the terrific things that she did through the years.”
At least we do. Rest in peace, Pat.