How You Too Can Reach the “Summitt” of Branding

Pat Summitt

She was born in Clarksville, Tennessee, the fourth of five children. She grew up on the family farm with her three older brothers and younger sister. Farm life taught all of the children hard work, commitment and dedication. When their chores were completed, she and her brothers would play two-on-two basketball. She not only developed a love for the game, she learned how to hold her own against the boys.

However, she encountered an obstacle when she reached high school age – the local school didn’t have a girls’ basketball program. Her father was so supportive that he moved the family across the county line to Henrietta, Tennessee where she excelled on the girl’s team.  There was a new obstacle when it came time for her to go to college – scholarships didn’t exist for female basketball. Her parents sacrificed to pay tuition, allowing her to attend the University of Tennessee-Martin.

Of course she played basketball for the UT-M Lady Pacers. As a junior, she played for the U.S. in the World University Games held in Moscow. She next set her sight on making the U.S. team in what would be the first ever Olympics to include women’s basketball. Another goal – another obstacle. As a senior, she blew out her knee. Doctors told her she needed surgery and wouldn’t be able to play again. She and her father had a different message for the medical team – they needed to ‘fix her knee’ because she was going to the Olympics in 1976.

It was then 1974 and she was offered the graduate assistant coaching position at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville (UT). Just as she accepted that position, the head coach unexpectedly resigned.  As a 22 year old having never coached a game in her life, she was named the head coach. Most of her players were just a year younger than her.

In each of her first two seasons of coaching at UT, the team won 16 games – which was considered respectable although not championship caliber. Women’s sports were barely funded at that time – she not only coached, she did the team laundry, drove the van to games and did every other task, no matter how menial. She also worked out twice a day, lost a good deal of weight and got her knee in game shape.

Suddenly it was 1976 and she was a player coach on the U.S. Women’s Olympic team. That team went on to win the silver medal, a performance that would set the stage for a future of Olympic success for the U.S. women. Back at UT, she had no way of knowing that her first two seasons of coaching would be the only ones that a team she coached would win less than 20 games in a year.

As a coach, she incorporated the work ethic which she learned on the farm. She instilled in her players the determination that she had learned as a young girl playing against her older brothers. A life of overcoming obstacles, of finding a way to succeed, helped her teach her players how to win against the odds. Her teams went on to win eight national championships, sixteen SEC Conference championships and sixteen SEC Tournament titles. The University of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball program became one of the most elite programs in the nation for nearly forty years.

As a coach she compiled a record of 1,098 wins vs only 208 losses – a nearly unheard of winning percentage of 84%. She won countless coach of the year awards, most notably the Naismith Coach of the 20th century. Outside of basketball, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. These accomplishments don’t define the coach – rather these accomplishments are the direct result of Pat Summitt being a fearless brand.

Fearless Brands see opportunities where others see obstacles

Pat Summitt discovered early in her life that she had a passion for basketball. She incorporated the lessons she’d learned on the farm into her basketball efforts – both as a player and a coach. She often told recruits “If you’re lazy, stay away from me and my program – we work hard!”

Summitt had a trademark stare which she frequently focused on referees – but also on players, assistants and anyone else who didn’t meet her expectations. As a coach, she also cared a great deal for her players, exhibiting a motherly side rarely seen by the public. What the public could see was her love for her son, Tyler, himself now a head basketball coach for the women’s team at Louisiana Tech.

She is facing what is no doubt her greatest obstacle in her usual manner – with courage, dignity and determination. On August 27, 2011, Pat Summitt courageously announced that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, “Alzheimer’s Type,” and that the 2011-12 season would be her last as the head coach of the University of Tennessee.

There was an immediate and profound outpouring of support and love not only from the UT community, but the sports world as a whole. A “We Back Pat” campaign sprung up seemingly overnight. In November of 2011, Summitt announced the formation of her foundation, the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund, with the proceeds going toward cutting-edge research.

While many saw her announcement as courageous, it was merely Pat Summitt being herself – transparent, direct and no-nonsense.

There is much to learn about building a fearless brand by getting to know Pat Summitt – principles which relate to any and all brands

Don’t quit on your dream – Pat Summitt never met an obstacle which could hold her back. In every instance, she found a way to overcome the challenges. It’s that determination which set the stage for her to fully develop her fearless brand and to achieve the results that effective branding yields. Know your purpose and don’t give up on it.

The dream is nothing without the work – The accomplishments driven by Pat Summitt’s passion only materialized because of her stringent work ethic. Know your dream, find your purpose – but do the work needed to make it a reality.

Be genuine and transparent – With Pat Summitt, there is no doubt as to her beliefs and her expectations. Not only is she totally authentic, she is transparent. She instilled those traits into her basketball program as well. She is a person of integrity and courage. She has run a program above reproach. Not only do you need to know your value – your brand – it’s vital that your value proposition is completely and easily known by those you serve.

It’s unlikely that most people will equal the same level of success and notable as Pat Summitt. The good news is that doing so is not a requirement for building a fearless brand. Embrace your dream. Discover your purpose. Know your talents – and improve on them. The formula is quite simple actually – deliver exceptional value – receive extraordinary results.

Friday's Fearless Brand

Coach, International Speaker and Thought Partner - Bill’s mission is to add value to the world – one brand at a time. Bill guides individuals and companies alike in building what he refers to as a ‘fearless brand’. This is the process of discovering, embracing and delivering their greatest value – which allows them to realize greater profit. Read More

2 comments on “How You Too Can Reach the “Summitt” of Branding
  1. Well written Bill. I have always been a fan of Pat Summitt and the sustainable success she enjoyed at Tennessee. The 3 principles listed are valuable points we should all subscribe to and lead right to your final message, “deliver exceptional value – receive extraordinary results”.


    • Bill says:

      Thank you Gary – Pat Summitt is indeed a special person. The final message you reference is one that I know you’re also familiar with…and live on a daily basis.

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