When Yolett McPhee-McCuin was a teenager growing up in the Bahamas, playing basketball on her father’s AAU teams, she watched ESPN regularly because it provided a connection to the American collegiate game the point guard and future Jacksonville University coach aspired to join.
In the late 1990s, the one face that kept popping up on McPhee’s television screen would become her idol and role model from a distance: Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.
“In the Bahamas, we didn’t have female coaches, so [Summitt] was the first example to me,” said McPhee-McCuin, who guided JU to its first NCAA tournament berth in March. “When her book [“Raise the Roof”] came out in 1998, I read it in a day.
“I thought I was working hard as a player, but I learned from her book it wasn’t enough. It was a dose of reality. I thought, ‘Whoa, I got a ways to go.’”
Despite her outgoing personality, Coach Yo was too star-struck by Summitt’s presence whenever they happened to be recruiting at the same event to strike up a conversation beyond a quick hello.
“I was always at a loss for words,” said McPhee-McCuin.
Now, with Summitt’s passing at age 64 on Tuesday from Alzheimer’s, McPhee-McCuin and millions of female athletes from different generations have lost the one woman in coaching who towers above the rest.
Think about it: Can you name one female coach who approaches Summitt’s stature or level of accomplishment?
Summitt became the face of women’s college basketball in the post-Title IX era. While Geno Auriemma’s UConn program is now the sport’s superpower, it was Summitt, who began a 38-year coaching stint in 1974, and her Lady Vols who first put the game on the national map.
Nobody cared about women’s hoops until Summitt created a UT dynasty that — once UConn rose up to provide a compelling rivalry — made America take notice of a different basketball gender.
The sheer force of Summitt’s personality was reminiscent of another NFL coaching icon, Vince Lombardi. And her career ascent coincided with a college contemporary on the men’s side, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.
Her record 1,098 wins might be surpassed by Auriemma if he stays in coaching another five years, but it’ll be impossible for anybody to replace the trailblazing Summitt.
She’s the gold standard because Summitt created a way for players in the embryonic stage of women’s college basketball to excel beyond what anybody thought possible, making UT games a must-see attraction.
“It just ripped me apart,” McPhee-McCuin said of Summitt’s passing. “Somebody I never knew touched me. I grew up idolizing her, trying to be like her. She’s the pioneer of women’s basketball. We love her. She taught everybody.
“She made it acceptable for women to coach hard, to push their players and have high expectations. She did so much for us.”
That’s why on the Mount Rushmore of female coaches, Pat Summitt stands alone. There’ll never be another one like her.