Legend: A tribute to Pat Summitt
WASHINGTON — To her already long list of remarkable accomplishments, former University of Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt can now add yet another distinguished honor: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
President Barack Obama presented Summitt and a dozen other legends in the political and cultural arenas with the medal — the nation's highest civilian honor — during a standing-room-only ceremony at the White House on Tuesday.
Summitt sat between sunglasses-wearing rock star Bob Dylan and retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, also medal recipients, while Obama marveled at what she accomplished in her 38-year career, which included more victories than any other college basketball coach, male or female.
More importantly, Obama said, she has been a role model not only to the young women she has coached, but to young girls across the country, including his own daughters, Sasha and Malia.
"Knowing that because of folks like coach Summitt, they're standing up straight and diving after loose balls and feeling confident and strong, then I understand that the impact that these people have had extends beyond me," Obama said. "It will continue for generations to come."
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is given to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other endeavors.
For Summitt, 59, the honor comes just two months after she stepped down as head coach at UT and just eight months after she disclosed that she has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.
Summitt's legendary feats as the Lady Vols' head coach included 1,098 victories and eight national championships. She was named NCAA Coach of the Year eight times and has been a member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame since 1999. She now holds the position of head coach emeritus at UT.
At Tuesday's ceremony in the White House East Room, Obama lauded Summitt for her tenacity on the basketball court, and off.
When a doctor first told Summitt she suffered from dementia, "she almost punched him," Obama said.
When a second doctor advised her to retire, she fired back, "Do you know who you're dealing with here?"
"Obviously," Obama said, "they did not. As Pat says, 'I can fix a tractor, mow hay, plow a field, chop tobacco, fire a barn and call the cows. But what I'm really known for is winning.' "
Summitt has applied the same toughness in her fight against the illness that ended her career, Obama said.
"That's why anyone feeling sorry for Pat will find themselves on the receiving end of that famous glare," Obama said. "Or she might punch you."
Just before Obama placed the medal around Summitt's neck, a military aide read aloud a list of her career highlights and called her "an unparalleled figure in collegiate sports."
In the audience were Summitt's son, Tyler, who sat directly behind Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Nancy-Ann DeParle, Obama's deputy chief of staff, who is a UT grad and was dressed in a bright, Tennessee-orange dress; U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-Knoxville; and state Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, and his wife, LeTonia.
Besides Summitt, other medal recipients included former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; astronaut and former U.S. Sen. John Glenn; novelist Toni Morrison; and labor and civil rights leader Dolores Clara Fernandez Huerta.