St. Joe’s Smallbone remembers her mentor, coach Pat Summitt

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Women’s sports lost its biggest trailblazer Tuesday morning when legendary Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summitt lost her battle with early onset dementia at the age of 64.

Summitt won eight national titles and more than 1,000 games as the head coach of the Lady Vols.

South Bend St. Joe alum and new Indians girls basketball coach Sydney Smallbone played for Summitt from 2007-2011 at Tennessee.

“It’s been a few years now that we’ve known that she’s had early onset dementia and it obviously went pretty rapidly after that,” Smallbone said. “Just happy that she’s in a better place and that the suffering is over for her. The amount of impact that she’s had on so many people is crazy. To be a part of that and to have learned from her for four years I was there playing basketball is something that I value every single day. She truly was such a great person first. The life lessons that I learned, not just about basketball but about life. It’s really sad that it’s come to an end. Someone I can’t pick up the phone and call anymore so I’m going to have to remember everything that she taught me and it’s something that I’m going to value for the rest of my life.”

When Smallbone coaches, she believes she has a lot of Pat Summitt in her.

“Just her passion and intensity for the game of basketball and the amount of time she spent teaching life lessons as well as the x’s and o’s. It’s something that I try to do as well,” Smallbone explained. “The ability to impact the youth is such a strong thing and it’s something that I take very seriously and I think Pat did that as well and to be able to learn from that and be able to learn from her leadership style and how she was able to motivate so many, that’s something I try to do when I coach and try to have fun with it too. It really was her passion and she was able to bring that out with us and that’s what I try to do with the girls I coach as well.”

Smallbone had a standout playing career at South Bend St. Joe before heading to Tennessee to play for Summitt. Smallbone was a freshman when Summitt won her 8th and final national title.

“It’s really special, I think there’s something to the tune of 145 of us or so who went through her program and made it through the entire four years and then to be a part of the eight national championships that she won kind of sets us in the next caliber of elite players that played for her,” Smallbone says. “To be a part of a team that was able to accomplish so much, I learned so much from Pat and my other teammates and what it takes to win every single game and the preparation that went behind that.

And Smallbone was there to give coach a hug when Pat won her 1000th career game.

“She was unlike anybody I’d ever been around,” Smallbone said. “Just when she walked in the room, her presence, her charisma, her ability to associate with so many, she was a great coach.”

Summitt’s condition wasn’t announced until after Smallbone’s senior year was over but Sydney started seeing the signs in her last few years at UT.

“Pat just wasn’t the same,” Smallbone says remembering Summit’s final years as coach at Tennessee. “We noticed that the assistant coaches were taking over a little more than they would have in timeouts, with scouting reports, that type of stuff. When i heard the news [that Summitt had been diagnosed with early onset dementia], it kind of made sense a little bit. She was doing things like leaving her car running, forgetting where she parked her car, getting lost in her neighborhood and things like that we knew something was up and she did too.”

Summitt’s conditioned worsened over time and Tuesday morning, the coach who changed the way we look at women’s sports saw her life come to an end.

“She accomplished so much for women’s sports, for sports in general and it’s a sad day but I’m glad she’s not suffering anymore because it was rough toward the end for her,” Smallbone said. “She’s on to bigger and better, she’s probably scouting and making a team up there in heaven right now, who knows. Probably putting a team together as we speak.”

Summitt’s funeral services will be private but their will be a public celebration of life July 14th in Knoxville. Smallbone says she will head to Tennessee along with many other former Tennessee players.

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