Soon after Pat Summitt, the basketball Hall of Famer and the winningest college coach of all time (men’s or women’s), died on Tuesday morning, the tributes to her career came rushing in. Summitt’s record on the court itself was monumental, but many obituaries also focused on her place at the forefront of women’s sports during arguably its most important era — the decades of growth after Title IX began. And the numbers clearly show the magnitude of her legacy on the court and off.
To measure the performance of Summitt’s Tennessee teams, I grabbed AP poll data from the College Poll Archive (going back to 1976-77, Summitt’s third year with the Vols) and scored each team based on where it finished in the final end-of-season poll.1 For the entire sample of 40 seasons, no program in the country — not even the mighty UConn Huskies — can touch Tennessee’s record, an accomplishment owed almost entirely to the program Summitt built:
On a per-year basis, Summitt’s Tennessee squads garnered slightly more success in the AP poll than Connecticut has under Geno Auriemma, her longtime rival for the crown of greatest women’s basketball coach of all time. (Summit’s teams averaged 14.8 points of value per season — roughly the equivalent of finishing between third and fourth in the nation, on average, every year — for the 36 years she coached; Auriemma’s averaged 14.7 per season for 31 years.)
Of course, Summitt’s on-court success represents only a fraction of her overall résumé as a coach. As my ESPN colleague Kate Fagan wrote today, Summitt inspired an entire generation of girls to play the game better, setting an example for the way women’s sports can be played at a time when they were still struggling to gain a foothold with young female athletes.
In fact, the best years of Summitt’s career coincided with the fastest growth of participation in girls’ basketball after the initial post-Title IX spike. According to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of girls playing high-school basketball in the United States increased from 379,337 in 1988 to 456,873 in 1998 — a 20 percent gain for a sport that had seen a 10 percent decline over the previous eight years. And according to our methodology above, the best decade of Summitt’s career from a team-quality perspective was (you guessed it) 1988 to 1998.
Much more will be written about Summitt’s record, but her most lasting legacy is written every time a high school girl or a college woman shoots a basket.