COMMENTARY: The faith of Pat Summitt – 'I was given certain work to do' by God

by Michael Foust |

UPDATED June 29, 2016 11 a.m. EST

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Back in 1994 I was a young, wide-eyed reporter for the student newspaper at the University of Tennessee, looking forward to a career in sports journalism.

Peyton Manning would arrive that fall – and yes, I did get to cover his very first season – but my first "big-time" interview wasn't the future NFL star.

It was Lady Vol coach Pat Summitt. And that was a little intimidating.

Summitt, you see, already had won three national titles when I began covering her team. She also had claimed Olympic silver and gold medals as a player and a coach, and had turned Tennessee into a women's basketball powerhouse.

Yet it was her sideline presence that had caught my eye. She wasn't bombastic like Bobby Knight, but she wasn't super-calm like Tony Dungy, either. She was gifted with this incredible, intimidating "stare" that she would use throughout the game – at players who didn't run a play the right way, at referees who blew a call.

Perhaps she would, gulp, use the stare at me if I asked a question she didn't like.

Thankfully, though, I never got the stare. In fact, the first time I interviewed Coach Summitt – lots of people around her just called her "Pat" -- I got the exact opposite: a warm and welcoming smile. She treated me as if I were a national reporter for ESPN, and she was grateful for the coverage. Incredibly, she always remembered my name.

"Hi, Michael" – I can still here her say it.

But I wasn't anyone special. Summitt treated everyone around her the same way, even those players who caught her glaring stare. Sure, she had her tough-as-nails moments during games, but she also was high-fiving and hugging those same players afterward.

I also never heard her say a bad word – a pretty big deal when comparing that to today's sports world – although I'm sure she let a few coarse words fly. I never asked Coach Summitt about her faith – my questions back then were only about Xs and Os -- but she discussed it in her book, Sum It Up. Quite a bit, in fact. She grew up in a United Methodist church in Harrogate, Tenn. – that's where she was "taught to love the Lord" -- and at the time of her death June 28 was a member of Faith Promise Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Knoxville, Tenn.

Of her diagnosis of Alzheimer's, she told biographer Sally Jenkins, "I know that everything I've been given came as gifts from God, and he has a way of reminding us, 'This is my work.' God's plan is a mystery to me. I just know that I was given certain work to do ...."

In fact, Summitt recalled thinking three months prior to her diagnosis, "I know there's something else I'm supposed to be doing. There's something God wants me to do."

Her favorite verses to read post-diagnosis were the Psalms, particularly ones "that asked for God's help in staving off enemies."

She believed there was a purpose in the Alzheimer's diagnosis – for example, to be a spokesperson for other people in her situation, and even to help spotlight the need for a cure.

"God doesn't take things away to be cruel," she said in her biography. "He takes things away to make room for other things. He takes things away to lighten us. He takes things away so we can fly."

Lots of people will remember Summitt for her victories, but I always will have in mind an NCAA tournament game back in March 1994 that she lost. It had been three years since she had won a national championship, and her teams had not been back to the Final Four since. On this night in March 1994, her team – the top seed in the regional -- had just fallen by three points to Louisiana Tech in the Sweet 16. At most schools, a Sweet 16 loss would be the end of a great year, but under Summitt, it was a down year. She, too, was down during the post-game interview.

I had lots of thoughts that night: Perhaps the rest of the college basketball world had caught her, even passed her. Maybe she had lost the "magic." Could it be that Tennessee was now just one of a few good teams, instead of a dominant team?

Boy, was I wrong. She won three more NCAA titles that decade, and then – when everyone doubted her again in the 2000s – won two more.

She will be remembered for eight national championships and 18 Final Fours and – perhaps more significantly -- hundreds of players she helped shepherd into adulthood.

As Summitt said, God gave her "certain work to do." And she did it.

Michael Foust is a graduate of the University of Tennessee who covered Summitt while sports editor with The Daily Beacon student newspaper. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelFoust

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