In 2012, it’s unrealistic to absorb the full-scale portrait of Pat Summitt’s 38-year coaching career. If anyone can do it, though, it’s Cathy Rush.
The first brushstrokes came in 1977.
A scoreboard underneath the old arched roof of Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota read: The University of Tennessee 70, Immaculata College 38. The third-place game of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) basketball tournament marked the death of one dynasty and the birth of another.
Shaking hands after the Lady Vols’ decisive victory, 29-year-old Cathy Rush might as well of handed a baton to 25-year-old Pat Head.
Immaculata was a nondescript Catholic college of 400 students, all girls, located in a far-reaching corner of Philadelphia’s sprawling, patchwork suburbs. Rush became the school’s unordained savior in the '70s. Following a few years coaching seventh- and eighth-grade basketball, a 22-year-old Rush took over Immaculata’s unimportant basketball program in 1971. By 1974, the Mighty Macs, as they were affectionately known, had won three straight national championships. They were the original powerhouse of women's basketball. Rush’s name graced the pages of The New York Times as the legend of tiny Immaculata grew to folklore.
The Mighty Macs lost in the AIAW national title game in both 1975 and 1976. They reached a fifth straight Final Four in ’77, but Rush saw a train barreling down the tracks. President Nixon had signed off on Title IX in 1972, and by 1975, state schools with scholarship women’s players were competing in the AIAW tournament. Times of change were sweeping Immaculata away.
Stepping onto the court at Williams Arena, Rush knew it would be her last time coaching the Mighty Macs. The 32-point loss to Tennessee dropped her career record to 149 wins, 15 losses—a .909 winning percentage.
After congratulating young Pat Head on the victory, Rush, considered as the best women’s basketball coach in the country, walked off the floor for the final time. She had always planned on being a stay-at-home mom, and at 29, she’d ultimately retire from coaching to raise her two boys. Rush had little idea the loss to Tennessee would end up being the 60th victory of Pat Summit’s 1,098-win career.
“It’s crazy to think it was that long ago,” Rush told Nooga.com on Wednesday, just a few hours after news broke that Summit’s 38-year tenure as Tennessee head coach is now over. With a dash of irony, 35 years after her own retirement, Rush added, “It’s a sad time for anybody involved in women’s athletics and anybody involved in women’s basketball, to see someone of her stature retire.”
Despite coaching for just seven years, Rush joined Summitt in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008, eight years after Pat’s induction. Those three national titles aside, Rush is a Hall of Famer because she was a central figure in the pivotal point of history when America realized that women don’t play, they compete, just like men.
Rush lit the flame that Summitt turned into a blaze, and, for more than three decades, she sat back and proudly watched it burn.
“The focus on Pat has also brought a focus to women’s basketball,” Rush said. “All the wins and all the records—it brings attention to women’s basketball, which, to me, is always the important thing. Women’s basketball was elevated because of the success that she had. It goes hand-in-hand: her exposure has been women’s basketball’s exposure.”
It takes unshakable faith to be a pioneer. That’s what Rush had. It’s what Summitt carried on. The two bookended a revolution. Rush earned $450, or $22 per week, in her first season at Immaculata. Tennessee paid Summitt $1.5 million last season. Rush’s teams didn’t have a gym and played in dusty, one-piece tunics with mismatching Chuck Taylors. Summitt’s Lady Vols played to sold-out crowds at Thompson-Boling Arena in designer Adidas uniforms. Rush won her first national championship in front of “about 100 fans” and “one or two” media members at Illinois State University in 1972. A crowd of 21,655 inside Tampa’s St. Pete Times Forum joined a national television audience to see Summitt win her eighth national title in 2008.
1,098-208 career record
8 NCAA national championships
18 Final Fours appearances
32 NCAA tournament appearances
16 regular-season SEC titles
16 SEC tournament titles
2 Olympic gold medals (1 as player, 1 as coach)
Upon Rush’s foundation, Summitt grew into the bedrock of women’s basketball. She was the face of the game’s transformation.
Well before handing off the baton in 1977, Rush saw some signs of things to come. She coached Pat Head in the 1975 Pan-American Games, a year after the feisty guard ended her college playing career at UT-Martin. Head found a spot on the United States national team despite coming off a serious knee injury.
“She was a remarkable player, fiercely competitive,” Rush remembered. “A lot of what goes into coaching is knowledge and that sort of thing, but it’s also the tenacity and work ethic that go into making someone a success. It is so obvious in some people, including Pat. She was a tenacious player, and that carried over into her work ethic as a coach.”
Thirteen years after playing for Rush in the Pan-Am Games, Pat Summitt coached the United States to gold in the 1984 Olympics.
Having recently turned 65, Rush is a grandmother of six. Asked for her unique lens into Summitt’s longevity, she said, “Going back to the '70s—we’re now talking almost 40 years—to remain competitive for that long and to build a program from scratch, which she did, it’s just an amazing tribute to her. It’s just remarkable—people don’t do that, it doesn’t happen.”
At 59 years old, Summitt’s ongoing battle with Alzheimer’s is inspiring, poignant and sad, all at the same time. Rush barely mentioned the subject, except to say, “It’s just so unfortunate.” Knowing Summitt is consigned to an unfitting fate is difficult for everyone. It’s best left unsaid.
“She’s simply remarkable,” Rush said.
Perhaps that can be the title of Pat Summitt’s portrait.
Updated @ 9:44 a.m. on 04/19/12 to correct a typographical error.