07.09.134:45 AM ET

Pat Summitt’s Rise to the Top of College Basketball

An ESPN documentary digs into life of the famed Tennessee women’s basketball coach.

She can say a thousand words with just her eyes. Whether it is an icy-cold glare or a fiery flick, former University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt is famous for her stare-downs. As one former player says, “It rips through your soul.”

But while Summitt is known for her toughness and no-nonsense approach to coaching, those closest to her know she has a deep love for her school, her players, her friends, and her son. The documentary Pat XO, part of ESPN’s Nine for IX series, explores her life, including her diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and what really made her the winningest coach in NCAA basketball history. It airs July 9 at 8 p.m. on ESPN.

Though the film is about Summitt, it is presented through the eyes of her son, Tyler. He grew up at his mother’s side while she was coaching—there’s an especially poignant photo of her holding him as a baby while going over plays on a whiteboard—and he even signed the team’s graduation column in their locker room when he graduated from UT. As mother and son sit on their couch to look over a photo album and start telling Summitt’s story to the cameras, with their dogs circling them, you can really feel the mutual respect and love they have for each other.

Summitt and her son’s chat is buoyed by old photos, videos, and testimonies from co-workers, teammates, players, and family members. But some of the interviews are vignettes swathed in a retro, almost Instagram-like filter, which is distracting at times.

That didn’t stop me from taking a deep breath after finishing the film and saying aloud, “Wow, this lady is tough.” This is a woman who—while nine months pregnant—had her water break before a recruiting meeting, but still met with the recruit, then refused to have her baby while on the plane in Virginia, because her team had lost to University of Virginia in the Final Four six months earlier.

But as a farmer’s daughter who was depended upon to keep the family afloat and wasn’t even allowed to go to her own 16th-birthday party, she had to be resilient. Summitt starts telling her son about her first practice as head coach of UT’s women’s basketball team—when she was just 22 years old! (She maintains the head coach position fell into her lap after the previous coach suddenly left.) She laid down the law immediately: “You can decide right off what you want to do—you gonna be soft or you gonna be tough?” Her son asks, “And you were tough?” and she replies, “Absolutely.”

Arguably, she changed the game for women’s basketball. In the film, co-workers and friends attest that Summitt was constantly trying to get more games on TV and drum up more publicity for her teams.

“She laid the groundwork for where women’s basketball is today,” says Tennessee Lady Vols head coach Holly Warlick. “She’s the reason now we have big-time salaries, we now play in big arenas.”

When Tennessee began its heated rivalry with the University of Connecticut in 1995, all the pieces fell into place, and the first “glamorous” package for women’s basketball became key to growing the game. In the 1997–98 season, Summitt led her team to an unprecedented undefeated season, as the first NCAA team to ever go 39–0.

“Men respected what she did, and that changed everything for women,” says writer and friend Sally Jenkins. “Basically, she made the winner’s circle genderless.”

A person who never brought her private problems anywhere near the court, she finally had to speak up in 2011 when she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease at age 59. As someone who made the celebratory climb up the ladder to cut down the net from the hoop so many times after winning a big game, frankly, it was heartbreaking to hear her ask quizzically in the film, “Do I have to cut all of it?” But Summitt isn’t letting Alzheimer’s defeat her. She started the Pat Summitt Foundation to fund research and support patients with the disease.

After being beaten by Baylor in what would ultimately be her last game as head coach in March 2012, Summitt faced a teary-eyed locker room. After saying a few words, she asked if anyone had anything to add. Choking back tears, one player said, “Thanks for the opportunity, Coach. I wouldn’t be the woman I am today if it wasn’t for you.” We can only assume that the other 160 women who played for her are saying the same thing.