"Confidence is what happens when you've done the hard work that entitles you to succeed."
Any player adorning a University of Tennessee Lady Volunteer jersey had every reason to walk around Knoxville with confidence. The fact that Pat Summitt was their leader inspired the rest of us students to wear our colors with pride. It was a unique experience to attend UT while she was head coach, because there were as many fans cheering on the women's basketball team as the men's. To be told you "play like a girl" was a compliment, and through Coach Summitt the entire country learned that women could be just as competitive as men, both on and off the court.
I was driving back from vacation with my girlfriend when we heard on the radio that Coach Summitt was battling dementia. The news came to us from a male sports reporter, who sounded on the brink of tears while relaying the information. I have cried about her departure as coach, knowing that it is an end of an era and marks the exit of an irreplaceable role model Volunteers didn't expect to lose so soon. I also owe Coach Summitt a great deal personally: It is because of her that I found what I admired most in my father.
My dad was the star of his high-school basketball team in Kentucky, but because of his service in the Korean War, he missed the opportunity to try out for his beloved Kentucky Wildcats. He was able to attend the University of Kentucky after the military and watched the Big Blue play basketball from then until the end of his life.
I wasn't as interested in basketball growing up, but I was fascinated by my father's love of the game. Dad poured the concrete himself to create a small basketball court in our backyard, where I learned the fundamentals of H.O.R.S.E. He attended high-school tournaments in Nashville, even when he had no kids in high school, and hung an NCAA tournament grid on the kitchen wall every year.
Dad also watched Coach Summit. I was introduced to the University of Tennessee Lady Vols as a young girl because Dad refused to turn the channel. Of all the basketball games we had to endure him watching, those involving the Lady Vols made the biggest impression on me. That's because my tough, athletic, military dad was as interested in girls playing as the boys. He never complained that women were slow or didn't dunk, and he considered Coach Summitt one of the best in the game years before any sports analysts said the same. Coming from a man who went to UK when Coach Adolph Rupp was at the helm, his accolades of any other coach, let alone a woman, was a huge compliment and amazing to me.
Through Dad and Coach Summitt, I learned one of the most important lessons in my life: it doesn't matter who is playing in a game, as long as they are playing the game. To be a true fan of a sport is to encourage others to take part, and anyone who makes fun of any player for participating is not a real fan. Even though I am not an athlete, I have taken the message with me throughout my life that as a woman I am good enough and worthy to compete.
Coach Summitt is the all-time winningest coach in NCAA history, with 1,098 wins in 38 seasons. She led the Lady Vols to 32 SEC tournaments, winning 16 of them, and garnered eight NCAA Titles. She faced 164 different opponents from 35 conferences and was named NCAA Coach of the Year seven times. Her final trophy will come later this year, in the form of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
President Obama said in a statement, "Pat's gift has always been her ability to push those around her to new heights, and over the last 38 years, her unique approach has resulted in both unparalleled success on the court and unrivaled loyalty from those who know her and those whose lives she has touched."
Impressive records, but I think the most important thing she accomplished was actually leveling the playing field. She helped women learn not to be ashamed to sweat, be aggressive, and steal the ball. She taught us to argue calls that weren't fair and deflect passes that aren't in our best interest, and how to rebound when someone else can't make the shot. As players in the Game of Life, women are every bit as important as the guys, and I was lucky enough to be the daughter of a man who understood that.
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