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The View From Pluto: Pat Summitt Took Women's Basketball from Broom Closet Gyms to Center Stage

Pat Summitt

Pat Summitt is being remembered for the mark she left on women’s athletics. Summitt, the winningest coach in college basketball history, died Tuesday at age 64 after being diagnosed five years ago with early-onset dementia Alzheimer’s. Summitt led the Tennessee Lady Vols to eight titles in her 38 years as coach.

WKSU commentator Terry Pluto says that when Pat Summitt became head coach in 1974, the NCAA didn’t even formally recognize women's basketball. 

"Before Title IX, you drove the van and you washed the uniforms. And every older women’s coach will have those stories. The difference for Pat Summitt was, she took women’s college basketball out of the afterthought of the broom closet gym and she made that program so prominent in Tennessee.

Pluto says he met Summitt twice. The first time was when he went to Tennessee to watch Kent State play in the NCAA tournament in Knoxville. Pluto says he was amazed how the women's games were drawing more fans than the men's.

Charming, but with an icy glare
Summitt was known for the icy glare she would shoot players from the sidelines when things weren't going well. "That stare could make concrete buckle," Pluto says. "They would always say, ‘She could just stare at a redwood and watch it melt! The leaves would just come down!’

"She walks into the gym. It just stops. People are just staring. She just had a rockstar effect on girl's basketball in the middle 90's."

Pluto says he was curious about what she was really like. So, he asked a few reporters who knew some of her players. "They said, ‘She'll get mad at you and you’ll have it out with her, but the next day it’s over.' "

Still, Pluto says despite Summitt's often prickly demeanor on the court, she was charming and understood that basketball wasn't just about winning games, but selling the program. 

"She could have run any company because a big part of being a coach is the people skills, the organization, dealing with adversity and [being] smart enough to know that, ‘I built Tennessee. This is my place. I’m not going to go anywhere else.’"

Starstruck in Northeast Ohio
The second encounter Pluto had with Summitt was at a girl's high school basketball game in Summit County in the mid 1990's. He says Summitt was there to watch Garfield Heights Trinity High School standout Semeka Randall.

"[Summitt] walks into the gym. It just stops. People are just staring. She just had a rockstar effect on girl’s basketball in the middle 90’s. I introduced myself; she gave us some nice quotes about Semeka. She signed autographs."

And, Pluto says he once had a conversation about Summitt with his friend, former NBA player and executive Wayne Embry. "Wayne was on these Olympic committees and USA Basketball and Pat was involved on the women’s end of that. I mentioned that I was going to see her. He said, 'Patty could coach a men’s team in Division I. That’s how good she is.'"

Women coaching men?
Pluto says Summitt's legacy could lead to women coaches in men's sports, especially basketball. "A lot of times now a lot of the top girls in high school will get into games with boys. We’ve already seen, for example, Greg Popovich with the San Antontio Spurs, has a WNBA player on this staff. But I would think at some point some fledging Division I program -- not just to make a slash -- but figuring, 'We’ve tried all these other guys, let’s try this woman if she’s willing to do it.' I certainly expect at some point some Division III school to try and break that line."

Pluto says Summitt gets the credit for making women's basketball what it is today. "You’ll never see anything else quite like it again," he says. 

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