Pat Summitt’s reach and inspiration seen in Illinois athletes

By Erin Barney

Pat Summitt was a game changer.

Not just in the cliché sense of the phrase, though. The former University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach and winningest coach in Division I history certainly was a pivotal figure. But she transcended the common expression and literally changed women’s basketball.

Summitt died yesterday in Knoxville, Tennessee at the age of 64, but those she inspired intend to honor her legacy with continued advocacy for women’s sports.

Riley Gardner, 29, felt Summitt’s influence all the way in Peoria, Illinois. She fell in love with hardwood floors and bank shots as soon as she could walk. But even though she perfected a crossover dribble in middle school, she was cut from the Peoria high school freshman team. It was the first of many times she would turn to Summitt for guidance.

“That night, I went home and started reading [Summitt’s] books,” Gardner said. “I could have cried and been upset, but she taught me to be tough and have discipline.”

It’s a toughness Gardner has woven into every coaching opportunity she has pursued since that day. At 14, she assisted at the high school and by 22, with a BMA and MBA from Bradley University, she built her hometown’s first AAU girls basketball organization, Heart of Illinois. Since its inception, it has grown from one to seven teams and remains the town’s most successful program.

Like Summitt, Gardner strove to change something about the game, better it for young women and future players everywhere. Lofty goals, she admitted, but who says the next movement in women’s hoops couldn’t start in Peoria? She followed Summitt’s lead and became a coach no one expected, but one the sport deserved.

“Lady coaches are looked at different,” Gardner said. “If a male coach yells and gets on his players, he’s just being a guy. If I were to do the same, I would be seen as a bully or mean.

“But it’s OK to be hard and have high expectations. It’s what the sport needs. I don’t worry about the perception of what female coaches should do.”

Gardner and Summitt blazed the trail for women like Mariah Nimmo, 23, a strength and conditioning graduate assistant at Illinois State University. Nimmo was fortunate enough to be coached by both as member of the inaugural Heart of Illinois team and an attendant at Summitt’s basketball camp in 2008.

“[Summitt] is a legend,” Nimmo said. “Of course I dreamed of playing for her. She made champions.”

Nimmo has always had to find ways to stand out in male-dominated industries. She’s been doing it since she was five, playing on all-boys basketball teams in Peoria until joining Heart of Illinois in high school.

“I couldn’t get the ball up to the 10-foot rim like they could,” Nimmo said. “I had no choice but to get stronger.”

Now, as the only female strength coach at Illinois State, she’s the one helping the young men improve.

As a player, Nimmo admired Summitt’s knowledge of and passion for the game. And while she left that summer camp with a better jump shot, she puts more value on the off-the-court lessons Summitt taught.

“’Discipline yourself so no one else has to’ is what she told us,” Nimmo said. “In life, whatever it is, you have to want it.”

Athletics and life lessons are inseparable, Nimmo said. She learned sportsmanship from basketball and was taught its greater applications by coaches like Gardner and Summitt. As her idols have done, Nimmo hopes to shape athletes into championship players and people.

“It’s about respect. Having it, and demanding it,” Nimmo said. “[Summitt and Gardner] did it first. They paved the way.”

Photo at top: Summitt was the first U.S. basketball Olympic player to medal (1973), then later return as an assistant (1980) and head coach (1997). (Erin Barney/MEDILL)