UNC's Sylvia Hatchell talks about the passing of close friend Pat Summitt
Sylvia Hatchell went to sleep on Monday night knowing that one of her dearest friends, Pat Summitt, likely wouldn’t survive the night. Hatchell awoke to the news on Tuesday morning: Summitt was gone, dead at 64 after suffering for years from dementia.
Hatchell, the women’s basketball coach at North Carolina, spent the morning in reflection, and mourning. She’d known this day was coming, had braced for it, had expected it in recent days. And yet there was no way to prepare, not exactly, for the moment of finality.
“I’m going to try to get through this,” Hatchell told reporters who’d come to her office on Tuesday to hear her speak about Summitt, the longtime Tennessee women’s basketball coach who died Tuesday in Knoxville, Tenn., and who will be remembered as an American sports pioneer.
Hatchell brought some memorabilia. Pictures of her and Summitt standing next to each other. Magazine covers they shared. A bright orange shirt that had been sent to Hatchell after Summitt received her early onset dementia diagnosis in 2011.
Hatchell reached for the shirt at one point, unfolded it. She held it up with pride.
There was a little bit of light blue in some of the lettering and that was fitting. As much orange as Summitt always wore, Hatchell said Summitt’s favorite color was always Carolina blue.
On the front of the shirt it said “We Back Pat;” on the back, “Our coach, our friend, our family.”
For more than four decades, Summitt had been all of those things at different moments to Hatchell. Sometimes, most times, Summitt had been all those at once.
Hatchell picked up an old basketball score book that had been sitting on a table. She had looked through it earlier in the morning, remembering the first time she encountered Summitt, when they played against each other in a college basketball game sometime in the early 1970s.
Now that memory endured on fading pages from a time before both women were married and took their husbands’ last names: Carson-Newman’s Sylvia Rhyne, No. 25, and Tennessee-Martin’s Pat Head, No. 22. Hatchell finished with six points in that game, Summitt with eight.
“And here we are,” Hatchell said, looking at those pages more than 40 years later.
They didn’t know each other then, not personally. Soon they enrolled in graduate school at Tennessee.
Summitt and Hatchell both arrived there with what Hatchell described as an “assistantship” – a sort of internship – with the women’s basketball program. They became fast friends, both pursuing their passion for basketball and coaching.
It was an especially risky proposition. There was no established path to becoming a college women’s basketball coach and a women’s basketball coaching job didn’t necessarily guarantee any kind of career, anyway, given the sport’s precarious status.
This was 1974, two years after the passage of Title IX and eight years before women’s basketball became an official NCAA sport. Coaches at the highest levels of women’s college basketball make hundreds of thousands of dollars, at least, these days. Back then they made hundreds per month.
Summitt’s success in those early days helped the sport grow. She helped women’s basketball become a viable career option for aspiring coaches, and helped open the sport’s doors to countless girls who grew up, some of them, wanting to play for Summitt – or anywhere.
“Pat knocked down so many doors, so many barriers,” Hatchell said at one point on Tuesday, touching on contributions that were difficult to quantify. “And I don’t know in my lifetime if I have ever known or been around a more assertive, aggressive, dominating female than Pat Summitt.”
Summitt was known for her icy stare, for her intensity. Once, Hatchell remembered on Tuesday, they had coached against each other with a trip to the Final Four at stake.
Hatchell and the Tar Heels held a commanding lead with about seven minutes to go. And, the way Hatchell told it, “Pat went out on the court, center court now, and got in the referees’ faces going like this ...”
Hatchell waved her finger aggressively in front of her face.
“No technical, nothing,” she said, “and the rest of the game, they shot 16 foul shots, we shot four and we lost by three points. You know? I’ll never forget that.”
That was only part of it, though – all that could be seen on a court. Hatchell saw more.
Not long after Summitt and Hatchell arrived at Tennessee the head coaching position came open. Summitt, then 22, earned the promotion, and Hatchell coached the junior varsity.
They took the same classes and kept the same schedule and held some of the same coaching responsibilities and so, Hatchell said, “except when we were sleeping, we were together, pretty much.” And that’s how their bond began to grow.
More than once on Tuesday, Hatchell repeated that she and Summitt were the same age. Hatchell turned 64 in February, Summitt in June. They were married one year apart and their first children, both boys, were born one year apart.
“So we went through a lot of life experiences about the same time,” Hatchell said.
They experienced triumphs together. Happy moments.
They leaned on each other during more difficult times, too. About two years after Summitt’s dementia diagnosis, Hatchell learned just before the start of the 2013-14 season that she had leukemia. By then, Summitt’s condition had forced her into an early retirement.
Hatchell’s cancer diagnosis, meanwhile, forced her into the hospital for a month. She missed the season. Hatchell said on Tuesday that during that long month in the hospital, she heard from Summitt every day.
By then, Summitt’s disease had started to take hold. The conversations were short, Summitt’s words the same day after day.
“She’d say, ‘How are you today, I love you, I’m thinking about you,’” Hatchell said. “She would repeat herself, but she would call me every day.”
Hatchell was reminded on Tuesday of other phone calls, decades earlier. UNC began looking for a new women’s basketball head coach in 1984.
By then, Summitt was well on her way at Tennessee, where she would win eight national championships and 1,098 games – more than any coach, men’s or women’s, in Division I basketball history. While Summitt had established herself, Hatchell was still waiting for her big break.
She wanted the job at UNC. Summitt, meanwhile, wanted her to have the job at UNC.
“And I think she was pretty aggressive with John Swofford about hiring me here,” Hatchell said. “Because when Pat was on a mission now, she got it done. She got it done.”
Swofford, now the ACC commissioner, was then the athletic director at UNC. He liked Hatchell well enough on her own merit.
Then Summitt called him, urging him to hire Hatchell. Then she called again.
“In a coaching search, many people will call once, but not many make multiple calls,” Swofford said on Tuesday, through a league spokesperson. “When someone of Pat Summitt’s caliber calls twice, it has an impact.”
Hatchell has been at UNC ever since. In some ways she tried to build her program the way Summitt built hers at Tennessee. Summitt could be demanding – often was demanding – and Hatchell has used a similar approach.
The last time they saw each other, Hatchell said, was about a year ago. Hatchell visited Summitt in Tennessee, as she often did.
During those visits Hatchell always stayed at Summitt’s house, and Summitt always cooked memorable dinners. That cold, fierce stare, such a part in Summitt’s sideline demeanor, gave way to warm hospitality, Hatchell said.
“If Pat was there, there was a party,” Hatchell said.
By last summer, the party had long ended. The moment came to Hatchell again on Tuesday morning, the last time she’d seen Summitt – the embrace in the driveway out in front of the house and the parting words.
“We hugged each other and she said, ‘I love you,’” Hatchell said.
She thought of that moment on Tuesday morning and of others. She thought of Kay Yow, the former N.C. State women’s basketball coach. The three of them, Hatchell and Summitt and Yow, had been close for so long, a coaching sorority or sorts. In their own ways, they’d all helped shape women’s basketball into what it’s become.
Hatchell said her first thought on Tuesday morning was of Summitt and Yow. Hatchell envisioned them together again, reunited in another place.
“I thought ‘Well, Pat and Kay are up in heaven doing a coaching clinic,’” Hatchell said. “I can just see them both sitting there right now, X’ing and O’ing.”
On a sad day Hatchell smiled at the thought.