Steve Spurrier will miss Pat Summitt.
Two of the all-time winningest coaches in their respective sports formed a strong friendship that has lasted more than a quarter century despite coaching at bitter rivals most of that time. As Spurrier begins thinking about starting the next phase of his life at age 71, Summitt reached the end of hers at the age of 64, dying Tuesday morning.
The former Tennessee women’s basketball coach announced in 2011 she’d been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, and the condition worsened during the weekend to the point that friends and family gathered in Knoxville, Tenn.
Erin Freeman of Ackermann Public Relations released a statement to The (Nashville) Tennessean which read, “She is surrounded by those who mean the most to her and during this time, we ask for prayers for Pat and her family and friends, as well as your utmost respect and privacy. Thank you.”
It was tough news for Spurrier to hear.
“Sometimes in life, we take everything for granted,” he told The State on Monday. “Fortunately, none of that bad stuff has hit me. All you have to do is look around and see all the illnesses, diseases, car wrecks, all kind of stuff that happens. I count my blessings every day.”
Summitt coached at Tennessee for 38 years, compiling 1,098 victories and eight national championships while helping to move women’s basketball from a niche sport to a major player in college athletics. She and Spurrier first met when he became Florida’s football coach in 1990, and the two frequently had dinner together during the SEC’s annual spring meetings in Florida. Spurrier and wife Jerri also spent time at Summitt’s beach house at Rosemary Beach, nearby the site of the meetings, Spurrier said.
“She sort of always liked me for some reason, and I always liked her,” Spurrier said. “There’s a fact of life that people who win a lot, they admire and respect other people who win a lot. Winners admire and respect other winners. We were both doing pretty well at that time, so we got along very well.”
When Spurrier was coaching the Gators against Phil Fulmer and the Volunteers in some of the most heated college football games of the 1990s, he and Summitt would visit at Neyland Stadium before the games on the years Florida traveled to Knoxville.
“She’d just drive by and say, ‘Hey,’ ” Spurrier said.
They never compared many coaching notes, he said.
“You could watch her coach and watch me coach and sort of figure out how we try to do it,” he said. “We were a lot alike as far as really into the game, yelling and screaming pretty much. Yelling encouragement and so forth.”
Spurrier compares Summitt to former UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden, which is high praise given Spurrier’s affinity for Wooden.
“She was certainly the pioneer of women’s basketball,” he said. “There is no question she brought it to what it is today.”
He last remembered seeing Summitt during a 2012 visit to Knoxville for a South Carolina-Tennessee basketball game. He and wife Jerri, along with former USC athletics director Eric Hyman, were allowed into the Tennessee locker room for the pregame speech, which came from then-assistant coach Mickie DeMoss.
“Pat kind of stood over to side, so you could tell she was not what she used to be,” Spurrier said. “It was sad to see, but she was the best in her sport for a long time.”