Marquette assistant women's basketball coach Tyler Summitt poses for a picture at the Al McGuire Center in Milwaukee. AP photo.
MILWAUKEE — When Marquette coach Terri Mitchell picked up the phone to talk with Tyler Summitt about the opening on her staff, it figured to be little more than a courtesy call.
Mitchell knew his pedigree — who didn’t? The son of Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt, who won eight national titles and more games than anyone else in NCAA college basketball in 38 years at Tennessee, Tyler Summitt has been around the game longer than some veteran coaches. But he was just finishing his senior year at Tennessee and, now 22, was barely older than many of the Marquette players.
Forty-five minutes later, Mitchell had asked Summitt to come to Marquette for an interview. By the end of the interview, he had the job.
“From the second I started asking him questions, he was on it. Just his philosophy, his passion,” Mitchell said. “Coming from Tennessee, watching his mom, all the national championships — he’s embraced all that knowledge and said, ‘How can I translate that into Marquette being a championship program? I will bring a championship environment every day because that’s all I know.’
“He’s going to be a star in our profession.”
Tyler Summitt was hired at Marquette in April, the very day his mother stepped down at Tennessee. She had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, in May 2011, a month shy of her 59th birthday.
Marquette is hosting a “We Back Pat” night to raise Alzheimer’s awareness Saturday, when it hosts Toledo. Pat Summitt plans to be there.
Because Tyler Summitt is so close to his mom, leaving Knoxville wasn’t easy. But Pat Summitt remains in good health — whenever Tyler Summitt calls, she’s usually just finishing a workout or doing one of the many memory quizzes or puzzles she has on her iPad — and she encouraged him to go.
“She’s prepared me for this and she knows I’m prepared and she believes in me and she’s taught me so much,” Tyler Summitt said. “So it’s fun to go and be doing kind of what she’s taught me to do and doing things the right way and mentoring young athletes while she’s right there watching.
“I think a part of her philosophy is living on in me, so I hope that I can continue to make her proud.”
Basketball has been part of Tyler Summitt’s life for, well, forever. While other kids were playing video games after school, he was hanging out at Tennessee practices. Instead of going to sleepovers or parties on weekends, he was taking road trips with the Lady Vols.
Some kids might rebel, seeking as different a career path as possible. But Summitt was captivated, never once considering doing anything else with his life.
“Basketball,” he said, “is just part of me.”
He was coaching basketball camps when he was in high school, and served as a student-assistant for the Lady Vols as a freshman. A walk-on at Tennessee his last two years, he coached AAU teams in his free time. When his mom watched game film, he’d pull up a seat and watch with her.
“Eventually, he saw everything I was seeing,” Pat Summitt said in an email. “I knew he had a gift to coach.”
Tyler Summitt was like a sponge with anyone he came in contact with — his mother; Billie Moore, the Hall of Famer who was Pat Summitt’s Olympic coach; John Wooden; Bruce Pearl and Cuonzo Martin, both of whom Tyler Summitt played for at Tennessee. He made notes of everything he learned, and has them stored on his computer.
Not just Xs and Os, either, but tips on leadership and building chemistry, ideas for dealing with discipline issues and on and on.
“You name a topic, bam! He can go in and start looking at ideas,” Mitchell said.
Though technically Summitt is responsible for Marquette’s guards, the position he played, Mitchell has always encouraged her assistants to jump in wherever they feel they can contribute and Summitt is no different. He’s an active voice at practice, and doesn’t hesitate to suggest plays or drills. If he’s got thoughts on offense, defense, transition, she wants to hear them.
“She has that trust and that’s something so great about her, she puts people in their strengths and lets them spread their wings,” Summitt said. “I don’t think my assistant’s role is like 99 percent of other assistants in the nation because she’s given me so much freedom.”
But Summitt has earned that, Mitchell said.
“Some coaches, as they come up through the ranks, think things are owed to them. You have to work at it. You’ve got to work for the corner office,” she said. “But he’s the complete opposite. He’s worked his tail off. So much so that I need to get him to relax.”
Summitt is well aware of the impact his mother had on the women’s game — on all of women’s sports, really. Pat Summitt’s Lady Vols were the first women’s team to go mainstream, and others — in basketball and beyond — soon followed. There’s not a day that goes by without someone emailing or calling Tyler Summitt to tell him about meeting his mom, getting her autograph or just seeing her at a game.
“I realize the impact she’s had. But I don’t think I’ll ever fully grasp the multitude of what she’s done,” he said.
He does, though, have greater admiration for the way she did it.
Yes, Pat Summitt won more games than any other coach, male or female, finishing with a 1,098-208 record at Tennessee. But it was the relationships she built with her players, the time she made for her family, the lessons she taught that could be carried from the court into every other corner of life, that stuck most with her son.
“There are countless opportunities for a coach to be power-hungry and get a ‘win-at-all-costs’ attitude, and she never did that,” Tyler Summitt said. “As competitive as she was, she resisted that. She always did things the right way. She always treated people the right way. She always put the relationships of her players first. And she always put discipline above winning.
“Focus on what you can control, do things the right way, be honest and open and communicate — there’s been those principles that aren’t written down, but they’re a part of me and a part of her,” he added.
And they’re helped sustain both mother and son since May 2011, when Pat Summitt was diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, a month shy of her 59th birthday.
Pat Summitt has always been brutally honest — her glare is legendary — so going public with her diagnosis was never a question, Tyler Summitt said. She established the Pat Summitt Foundation to raise awareness and funding of Alzheimer’s research, and became the public face of what, until now, has been a disease suffered mostly in private.
More than 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, 200,000 of whom are under 65.
“It’s not something people talk about as easily as cancer, AIDS, heart disease,” said Angela Geiger, the chief strategy officer for the Alzheimer’s Association. “Having a public figure like Pat come forward and say, ‘I noticed the signs, I sought out a diagnosis,’ really helps change the conversation.”
The “We Back Pat” campaign has spread across the country — and across sports. Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams made Summitt the “12th Titan” for the season opener, and Trevor Bayne had “We Back Pat” painted on his car for a Nationwide race at Bristol in August.
“It’s just more awareness. There can’t be enough,” Tyler Summitt said. “People seeing, ‘Hey, this isn’t stopping her, it doesn’t have to stop me or my loved one.’
“(This disease) will have as much power as you give it,” he added. “You can take its power away by, one, being open like mom was. And then, two, living your life.”