I knew all about Pat Summitt before I first met the legendary University of Tennessee women's basketball coach as a student reporter in 1990.
By then, her program was a national power and she had become a powerful presence in my home state. My high school gym teacher Zandra Morris played for Summitt so I heard many stories about how tough and demanding she was on her players.
I witnessed that firsthand on one of my first assignments at the UT student paper. I was working on a feature on a player, I can't even remember who now, but I do remember that Pat didn't like the tempo or energy at practice so she kicked her team off the floor early. She was not happy. I sat in the stands nervously wondering if I would get my interview or what kind of mood she would be in even if I did.
Summitt pointed at me, asked me to follow her and we went to her office. She proceeded to give me a wonderful interview. She was engaging and funny and insightful. It was, in essence, classic Summitt.
I recalled that story today after hearing news that Summitt has stepped down as coach after being diagnosed with early onset dementia last August. The news was not unexpected but it comes with great sadness for anyone who loves college basketball, or, like me, understands the impact Summitt has had on the Volunteer state.
Too often in sports we use the terms legend and icon loosely, but in Summitt's case it absolutely applies. She served as UT's head coach for 38 years. Think about that for a second -- 38 years.
She won eight national championships and 1,098 games. She led her team to 18 Final Four appearances and, according to the AP story, every player who completed her eligibility left UT with a diploma.
Pat -- that's what her players call her even -- made women's basketball popular inside my home state at a time when the sport received little support or fanfare elsewhere. She always conducted herself with class and her teams reflected her personality: they played incredibly hard, were tough and defense came first.
She is a straight shooter who expects a lot and gives even more. She cares deeply about UT and our state. She's a winner in every sense.
We always said that Pat could run for governor in Tennessee and win in a landslide because people admire everything that she stands for. Case in point: my mom isn't much of a sports fan, but she loves Summitt, Lady Vols basketball and tries to watch any game that's on national TV.
I always enjoyed watching her coach. She'd pace the sidelines with that look on her face, an intense stare that could burn a hole through you. Sometimes it was hard to tell if the Lady Vols were winning or losing. But her players love her. That's evident and it shows that coaches can be both incredibly demanding and caring if they're fair.
Summitt also has a playful side. She once dressed up in a cheerleader outfit, grabbed a microphone and sang Rocky Top at center court during timeout of a men's game. Can you imagine another coach doing that, much less a Hall of Famer?
People always have wondered whether Summitt could have coached men's basketball. Why stop there? In my opinion, she could have coached other sports too because leaders are leaders and the great ones know how to get the most out of their players. That's what Summitt did.
I haven't seen or talked to Summitt since I left UT, but I've remained a big fan over the years. Her presence in Tennessee remains larger than life and I'm certain there's a great deal of sadness back home today.
It's sad that her career ends like this, but the impact she's had on so many people and the pride she brought my state will last forever. For that, we're grateful.