Why Athletics May Never Allow Another Pat Summitt by Becky Carlson

Thank you Becky Carlson for this very important read!


The steady decline of female college coaches over the last 30 years is not an opinion, it is a fact. Among the most detrimental results of female coaches leaving or being forced out of the profession, here is one that many probably haven’t considered:

Athletics may never allow another Pat Summitt.

We can all read about leadership and post as many inspirational John Wooden memes as as we see fit. However, actually practicing, living and re-teaching their lessons comes with its own set of challenges, especially for female coaches. I have read my share of Pat Summitt books and have much admiration for the late fearless leader of the Lady Vols. I’ve even met a few former Tennessee players who would walk through fire for Coach Summitt today without a second thought.

A few years ago, I met one of Coach Summitt’s former players who is currently a successful high school athletic director. She spoke about a particular game the team lost during her tenure at Tennessee and more notably, the return trip home. She talked about how Coach Summitt told them that UT paid for the team to eat but only if the team gave their best effort. She shared that the team knew they had not played up to their own standards and had accepted missing dinner that night.

When I asked the former player what kind of personal feelings she had over this particular memory, she was overwhelmed with nostalgic respect for Coach Summitt and agreed as a leader that she had “every right to teach a hard lesson at that time”. The more we chatted the more we chuckled at the prospect of this method being employed in high school or college today. Both of us agreed we would lose our jobs if we ever chose this lesson to be the one we borrowed from Coach Summitt.

I then asked her directly, “Do you believe if Coach Summitt was reincarnated today and lived her legacy all over again as another female coach, would she ever be able to do it her way with this generation?”

She replied with an immediate “no”.

While I was fascinated by this former player’s story it left me wondering about the athletes of today and how different that scenario would play out in present time under a tough female coach of far less prominence than Coach Summitt.

I’ve heard many stories about other female college coaches such as Vivian Stringer, Dawn Staley and Tara VanDerveer. All of whom are accredited with successfully dishing out tough and notable lessons. These are some of the top names in the business of women’s college basketball where very few fans would bat an eye at some of the most rumored practices in toughness. Male coaches like Geno Auriemma write openly in their books about their direct methods and no-apologies attitude while they are revered for their honesty and passion. So where does that leave the rest of us?

Outside of the big names in women’s college basketball, what about the other 99% of female college coaches who work to have positive coach-athlete relationships but are tough on their players when it comes to the core values? The Summitt mentality is valuable and indeed a proven system but is the average athletic administration outside of D-I women’s NCAA powerhouse basketball prepared or interested in carving out space for new strong, direct and passionate female coaches?

For me, the answer is absolutely not.

The list of women in coaching who have been dismissed is alarming and our percentage of women coaches at 41.7% is actively on a backslide. (Stat courtesy of WeCoachSports.org)

There’s no doubt that somewhere in the population of up-and-coming fired female coaches was the next Pat Summitt. She was armed as a forward-thinker with a winning persona but given the current environment in athletics where strong women are devalued, it’s becoming more probable that we may never meet her.

Many of the changes for student-athlete safety and welfare have been positive additions to the philosophy and missions of departments and universities. However, as the institutions tweak their policies with the vast majority of leadership still being white males over 50, there has also been an abrupt elimination of accountability and ownership specifically for female athletes where the natural tendency is for male ADs to prompt their female coaches to protect rather than teach.

A few years ago, I went to a forum for the then-named Alliance of Women Coaches, now the WeCoach organization. During this seminar we had a breakout session where administrators and coaches were issued roundtable topics. I specifically chose a group where I was the only coach with several administrators. Our topic was dealing with explaining athlete playing time and reducing conflict in that area. As the only coach, I volunteered to go first and proudly explained our methodology for posting in the locker room what each player needed to work on in order to gain a starting position. In the middle of my explanation, a very prominent and respected female AD began to shake her head in disagreement and interrupted.

“Wait, you post it for the rest of the team to see?” she asked.

“Yes, this way it is transparent and it eliminates locker room chatter or drama for the team to know what each player needs to accomplish individually in order to start. It’s worked out well for us with no complaints,” I explained.

“That would never fly in my department,” she replied. “Any coach who did that would not last very long. You cannot embarrass female athletes like that.” she said.

This scenario was a learning moment and a puzzling one given that that very method I had explained and employed was borrowed and slightly tweaked directly from the leadership presentation of 13-time NCAA Champion UCLA coaching legend, Sue Enquist and her “Roll Call”. I had taken notes on this presentation only a few months before and found it amusing that this advice from a hall of fame coach would be so adamantly frowned upon when implemented by a non-hall of fame female college coach.

I think back on it now and wonder how many times the leadership at UCLA could have easily extinguished the bright light of one of the most amazing coaches of our time if they had chosen to see her strength and innovation as a threat, rather than an asset. Thankfully we were all lucky enough to watch Coach Enquist’s journey of unprecedented success but unfortunately, the next generation of female coach superstars are at risk for extinction.

This written piece is still about Coach Summitt and her leadership but is also about the minority of leadership who chooses to stick with these remarkable female coaches early on in their career. There are typically a few athletic directors on the resumes of every coach as they move through their years in the profession and each may have a different philosophy and mindset about what they want to achieve. However, every coach has someone they report to and every GREAT coach has someone who supported their journey to become legendary.

We must support our female coaches in their pursuit of going from good to great. This means we must be respected even when our decisions are unpopular, our faces are not wearing permanent smiles, and our tones fail to deliver a warm and fuzzy feeling.

Keep in mind, these are all among the most common characteristics of the same leadership we praise male coaches for. Great coaches became so because they were permitted to coach in their own skin where enthusiasm, innovation, confidence and courage were ingredients for success rather than a recipe for elimination. Female powerhouse coaches in major D-I sports cannot be the only ones institutions and departments allow to become great.

All divisions of the NCAA, JUCO and NAIA female coaches are much more the future of our sports than even the current big names. The next group of Coach Summitts are somewhere working their way up to great, but if we are not prepared to defend and support them along the way, it is a highly likely we may never get to witness that greatness again.

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