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Summitt following in mom’s footsteps
There’s a sentimental and iconic image from the 1996 women’s NCAA basketball championship game, the fourth of Pat Summitt’s eight titles in 38 seasons as the coach of Tennessee. The image is of a young, vibrant Summitt atop a ladder, dressed in a bright orange suit, holding a freshly cut net in her left hand, with a raised index finger.
By her side, a small boy in a white-and-orange striped shirt stands with his head and shoulders through the hoop, mirroring Summitt’s every move — he, too, raising a proud No. 1 skyward.
Tyler Summitt always idolized his mom, and has strived to be everything she was. It’s a mission he’s still on as a 22-year-old assistant coach for the Marquette women’s team, hoping to soon follow in his legendary mother’s footsteps as a head coach.
"Tyler has seen what it takes for a team to overachieve and knows how to lead a team there,” Pat Summitt said. “He is constantly working on becoming a dominant head coach, and I tell him not to work so hard sometimes. He’s been given a lot of responsibility at Marquette thanks to (head coach) Terri (Mitchell) and I know God will open a door for him soon."
The moment depicted in that 1996 image was a perfect snapshot of the connection between one of the most decorated coaches of all time and her only son. That bond has only strengthened in the two years since Pat was diagnosed with early onset dementia at age 59.
In a wide-ranging interview with FOXSports.com, Tyler opened up about the challenges he and his mother have faced over the past two years during Pat’s battle with Alzheimer’s, as well as his career goals and the family’s spirited approach to the uncertain road ahead.
And as he looks back on that night at Charlotte Coliseum, it’s not the celebration or the fanfare that comes to mind.
“Everybody remembers it differently than I do,” Summitt said by phone from Knoxville, where he was back to celebrate Mother’s Day and finalize preparations for his June 1 wedding to his high school sweetheart, AnDe Ragsdale.
“What I remember about that instance is that my mom wanted me to go up one more step. That’s all I remember. She’d say, ‘Go up one more step, a little bit higher,’ and I was scared of heights and said, ‘I ain’t going up one more step.’ So I stopped and we had a little argument at the top of the ladder. I was excited, but I hated that I had to get up on that ladder.”
It goes without saying that Pat Summitt had to be tough to get to the top rung of the ladder.
You don’t win 1,098 games and become the greatest without being able to strike a little fear into the hearts of your players and opponents. However, Tyler is quick to point out that Pat always had a fun side — like the time she dressed up in a cheerleading outfit and sang "Rocky Top" at a men’s game in 2007.
And there’s a sensitive way about her, too, and an understanding that everyone needs an escape and that there is a world outside the gym. As important as it was for Pat to prepare her players for competition on the court, it was just as vital that they be ready for life after basketball. Those lessons weren’t lost on Tyler, who spent a childhood gleefully shadowing his mom, in the locker room, in team meetings, on team buses, at tournaments and at banquets.
“One of the bigger lessons I learned from her was character, and really having the character to put your team before yourself, having the character to not hang your head,” Tyler said. “And that transfers over to one day when you’re in an organization and you’ve got to put the organization before yourself. You’re going to mess up no matter what profession you’re in, and you can’t hang your head. You’ve got to focus on what you can control.
“If you know how to succeed on the hardwood as a Lady Vol, you’re going to succeed in life. It’s the exact same lessons. It’s a different atmosphere, but the exact same lessons.”
When he was in middle school, Tyler made the decision that he was going to go into coaching, an ambitious, but understandable goal when you grow up a Summitt. “Everybody grew up wanting to be a firefighter, a policeman, whatever,” Tyler says. “I always wanted to be a head coach.”
In addition to painstakingly analyzing every last detail about his mom’s technique, Tyler took notes while still in high school at Webb School, playing under Landry Kosmalski, who went on to be an assistant at Davidson and head coach at Swarthmore. When Tyler later walked on as a player at Tennessee, he absorbed everything he could from coaches Bruce Pearl and Cuonzo Martin. He coached AAU basketball on the side and devoted his life to that goal of coaching a major Division I program.
And throughout, Tyler was adamant about doing things with dignity and upholding his own personal code — the way his mom taught him.
“I don’t care who you are, I don’t care what job you have, you’re going to be tempted to do things that you shouldn’t do,” he said. “Whether it’s to win a game or to get a big paycheck or to cut corners, or whatever it is, you’re going to be tempted to do something that’s not the right way.”
Tyler tells a story of a trying moment during his time as an AAU coach. Then 20, Summitt was coaching a 17-and-under team called the Tennessee Fury in a tournament in Nashville. ACT testing was going on that weekend, so his roster had been sliced from 10 players to five.
He had a team rule that players had to be at the gym an hour before game time. When one girl showed up late, Summitt stuck by his rule and started the game with four players on the court, forcing the girl who was late to sit for two minutes.
“I waited the longest two minutes of my life, all the parents were looking at me, the refs and the other coach were looking at me like I was crazy,” Tyler said. “But you’re going to seem crazy sometimes if you do things the right way and not let your standards slide. It really is black and white, and I think my mom was black and white. And she seemed crazy at times to a lot of people, but that’s how it was.”
At the urging of his mother and his mentor Billie Moore, the longtime women’s coach at UCLA and Pat’s Olympic coach in 1976, Tyler applied for a job last year as an assistant under Mitchell at Marquette. It didn’t take Mitchell long to be convinced that Tyler needed to be on her staff, and his hiring was made official on April 18, 2012 — the same day Pat retired from Tennessee.
“Everyone thinks Tyler was inexperienced, but he’s been like an assistant coach to his mom for at least the last six or seven years,” Moore said. “And he sees the game through her eyes, which is a pretty special gift.”
Those seeds of dedication already are starting to bear fruit for Summitt, who interviewed for the head coaching positions at Coastal Carolina and Tennessee-Chattanooga this spring. He didn’t get either of those jobs — it would have been poetic for him to get his first head coaching gig at the same age Pat was when she started at Tennessee — but it seems like only a matter of time before Tyler reaches his goal. And there’s no question he’s up for the task.
“She tells me that I have over-prepared,” Tyler says with a laugh when asked whether his mom thinks he’s ready to be a head coach. “She tells me that the only way I can learn more is to do it. She said that when she took the (Tennessee) job at 22, that she really wasn’t prepared at all, but that being a head coach and being in the position forced her to learn how to handle it. So she said that’s going to be the same for me.”
And when Tyler finally gets that joyous call, it’ll be yet another special moment to share with his mom.
“The great thing about most moms out there is that they’re going to be proud no matter what, and I know that’ll make her proud, absolutely,” Tyler said. “She knows how bad I want to be a head coach and how hard I've prepared and how strong my goals are and how I think that’s the passion God gave me. So I know she’ll be very happy for me, and she’ll be so proud of me, and that’s what makes it so special.”
The challenge for Tyler, then, will be going on about his career without getting lost in his mother’s legacy. His name alone makes it impossible not to try to draw parallels, but Tyler insists that he’s focused on forging his own path, not trying to duplicate what he witnessed growing up.
“I’m not going to have a Pat Summitt-style team,” Tyler said. “I’m going to have a Tyler Summitt team, and that’s similar, but will be different. … I'm not my mom, but it’s great motivation for me.”
Added Moore: “He embraces her excellence. He embraces her legacy, and he’s not one to think he’s going to break her records, or anything like that. But he still wants to strive to that level of excellence, so I think it’s a plus for him.
“As big a shadow as (Pat) casts, I don’t know if there’s too many children who would choose to follow in those footsteps, but she’s so proud and so very supportive.”
Pat’s diagnosis has forced Tyler, whom Pat calls her “rock,” to be as supportive of his mom as ever. Alzheimer's hasn't taken away Pat's passion for the things that are important to her, from basketball to cooking to exercising. She loves walking her beloved yellow labs, 6-year-old Sadie and 12-year-old Sally, and enjoys golfing (she had her first hole-in-one last summer) and being out on the water. She keeps up with the news fervently and spends as much time as she can around the gym, whether she's at UT, where she still maintains and office as head coach emeritus, or on trips to Milwaukee to see Tyler at Marquette.
"I know it’s God’s plan," Pat said of her illness. "I really enjoy still being involved with the Lady Vol program, talking to the staff and players, as well as working with the Pat Summitt Foundation and gathering the support for research."
But over the past two years, as the disease has begun to take hold, Tyler has witnessed a change in his mom that goes undetected by most.
“To the public, she seems like she doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, and I think that’s great,” he says, before taking a long pause to collect his thoughts. “But to me, her only child, who saw her juggle 20 things at one time and watch her be Wonder Woman for so many years, I know there’s a difference, because she doesn’t juggle 20 things anymore.
“She still juggles as many as I do, but it’s not the same, I don’t think. To win those championships, to have all those wins, to keep her program at the top, to develop all those relationships, to be the problem solver and to be the face of the program — she was juggling a ton of things at one time. And I think that’s the one thing, that she’s regular now. She’s not Wonder Woman anymore.”
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, Tyler says. Since her diagnosis, Pat, once an almost systematic stickler for details, has begun to focus her attention more on relationships and fostering meaningful memories.
“Whenever I (used to) talk to her after her practices, I'd ask, ‘What did you think; what can I learn from that practice?’” Tyler said. “And it would always be like, ‘They’ve got to do better on this drill,’ or ‘We’ve got to be better at rebounding or defense,’ or something like that. Now it’s, ‘It was so great to see Taber (Spani, Vols senior), and we had a great talk today.’
“That’s what I've always told people: She will never measure her career by championships or wins or all the numbers that we like to throw out. She measures it by those relationships and those people who are in coaching today or who are successful in whatever business they’re in. And if there’s any shift, that’s been her shift, in her focus on those relationships.”
Tyler Summitt says that in retirement, his mother is putting more emphasis on relationships with friends, family and family-to-be: Tyler's fiancee, AnDe Ragsdale.
Pat learning to put less significance in life’s minutiae also has allowed her to grow closer than ever to Tyler, as well as her future daughter-in-law, who just graduated from Tennessee on Wednesday.
“There’s been such an emphasis on that relationship, and on my mom being at AnDe and I's wedding, and AnDe and I just going over and hanging out at Mom’s house,” Tyler said. “Things like that just take so much more priority, and everything else is kind of background for a while. And I think that’s really what I've learned through our hardships.”
Tyler and Pat will celebrate Mother’s Day before Tyler heads back to Marquette, where he’s in charge of individual workouts this summer. And in three weeks, that little boy from atop the ladder in Charlotte will be back in Knoxville to get married.
His mom already has gotten her dress for the occasion, and she’ll be there, the most elated person in the church when he says, ‘I do.’ She’ll be just as thrilled for Tyler when he finally gets that first head coaching chance, whether it’s this year or next year or somewhere else down the road.
“I’m so very proud,” Summitt says, succinctly, “to be Tyler’s mom.”
It’s not known what the future will hold for Tyler and Pat after that. Alzheimer’s is a fickle, pitiless disease that even the strongest struggle to battle, and there is none stronger than Pat Summitt. Summitt will continue to make memories with her son. She’s going to continue to challenge Tyler and keep pushing him up that ladder, whether he likes it or not, and Tyler will savor every minute of it.
“I always say to him that maybe this disease is going to rob his mother of these memories, but right now, they’re very strong and very important to her,” Moore said. “And more importantly, they’re memories that he will long have, and no one can take those away from him.”
Said Tyler: “The first thing that my mom and I have both learned throughout this ordeal is to stay strong in our faith and trust that God has a plan. This is all God’s plan. I still talk to mom every day, whether I'm in Knoxville or Milwaukee or out recruiting. I talk to my fianceé numerous times per day. All you can do is focus on those relationships, and that’s what truly matters.”
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