Leadership From the Summitt

For those of us who make it our life’s work to write and talk about leadership, coaches are a natural model. They work to motivate others and help them develop their abilities. They bring people together in teams and teach them to balance individual strengths and the growth of the group. They’re philosophical about winning and failure.

Leadership From the Summitt

But even among great coaches, some stand especially tall. Pat Summitt, who died this week after a five-year battle with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, was one of those giants.

She inherited the head coach position unexpectedly in 1974, when women’s sports were all but invisible. She was a 22-year-old grad student, and her duties included washing the team’s uniforms and driving the van to away games. The Lady Vols lost the first game she coached, but it didn’t take her long to hit her stride, and from there she never looked back: a record 1,098 wins, eight national titles, 16 tournament and season titles from the SEC, seven years as NCAA Coach of the Year—and a gold medal for coaching the 1984 Olympic team. Just as impressive, 100 percent of her players who completed their eligibility at Tennessee graduated.


The secret of Summitt’s extraordinary success will probably continue to be debated in years to come. She engaged her players with a combination of unrelenting toughness, familial love, and the work ethic of her farm-girl upbringing. She was demanding, quick to yell or wordlessly destroy players with her famous icy glare. Stories abound of practices so intense that trash cans were placed around the court for players to be sick in—and of acts of great kindness and caring that extended to everyone around her.

These traits played their roles, but I see them as secondary to Summitt’s greatest strength: Her absolute refusal to give up or settle.

Michelle Marciniak, MVP of the Lady Vols’ 1996 national championship team, went on to play in the WNBA and then coach at the University of South Carolina before launching a career as an entrepreneur. She says of Summitt, “When you play for Pat, winning is an expectation. And when you win, there are no slaps on the back, no congratulations. You are, after all, one game closer to winning a championship–which is always the ‘bar’ – but you’re still not there yet. Work needs to get done to tweak, refine and work toward the greater goal.”


Of all Pat Summitt’s strengths as a coach, I believe this was the greatest—her insistence on pushing past boundaries, fighting tenaciously and never being happy with anything less than your ultimate goal. Those are the qualities she used to spur her players to academic success as well as athletic excellence. They’re the principles she held on to through her long fight with Alzheimer’s, and that those of us in leadership would do best to emulate and pass along to our teams.

Summitt herself may have said it best, at the end of her coaching career in 2013: “You can’t have any quit in you if you want to be successful.”

Quote Sources:
Summitt: http://www.npr.org/2016/06/28/483819314/legendary-tennessee-basketball-coach-pat-summitt-dies-at-64
Michelle Marciniak: http://fortune.com/2016/06/28/pat-summitt-marciniak/

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