There’s a good chance Buddy Ryan never met Pat Summitt. He was an NFL football coach who bounced around the map, most notably as an assistant. She spent all 38 years of her coaching career at the University of Tennessee, where she put women’s basketball on the map.
But because they died Tuesday morning, within a few hours and 220 miles of each other, Ryan and Summitt will be linked in perpetuity. Surely this was a coincidence and not part of some mystical blueprint, and yet it’s reasonable to wonder: Was it mere coincidence that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, former presidents and fellow Founding Fathers, died on the same July 4 day in 1826?
Ryan and Summitt, it turns out, were remarkably similar. Both were raised in the rural South, children of demanding fathers who sometimes crossed the blurred line between discipline and cruelty. (Summitt recalled the morning she was dropped off in a field occupied by a tractor. A note was taped to the tractor seat. It read, “When I come back, this work better be done.” She was 12.)
They were taught that self-pity is the most intolerable of weaknesses, that quitting isn’t an option, and that empathy is something better suited for the tail-wagging family dog than a parent with a laundry list. The demands put on Ryan and Summitt as youngsters produced hard-boiled coaches whose push-it-to-the-limit methods have gone out of style.
Summitt was famous for a glare so withering it could make words superfluous. Ryan, a combat veteran of the Korean War, was proud of his ability to maximize the efficiency of his words.
“Learning how to tear down players with one sentence, that’s what coaching is all about,” he once explained. “Embarrass ’em. Beat ’em down. Then bring ’em back.”
Ryan was not particularly nuanced about tearing down his players. He could do it eye-to-eye, and he could do it when they were 10 miles down the road. As a first-year head coach of the Eagles, in 1986, he offered this assessment of running back Earnest Jackson, who’d rushed for 1,098 yards in 1985.
“I’d trade him in a minute for a six pack, and it wouldn’t even have to be cold.”
A few days later, Jackson was waived.
Years before the advent of social media, Summitt knew all about the off-court whereabouts of her team during the season. Small surprise she learned about some Lady Vols attending a party that lingered well into the wee hours of the morning.
Payback was provided the following day, where trash cans were set up on the baselines. The team was required to run wind sprints that didn’t conclude until every player found it necessary to bend over one of the trash cans.
On another occasion, the team’s student manager was 30 minutes late for morning practice. The poor kid had been dealing with stomach issues of a different source.
“You don’t ever be late!” Summitt screamed. “Next time you just bring that toilet with you!”
You’d think such an unrelenting task master would inspire a mutiny. Instead, she inspired a loyalty best quantified by the 100 percent graduation rate of Summitt-coached athletes who completed their NCAA eligibility at Tennessee.
Despite Ryan’s drill-sergeant persona, his players revered him, too. At least that was the case during the eight years he worked in Chicago, where the defensive coordinator essentially served as a co-head coach of the Bears. Mike Ditka held the actual job title and savored his role as public face of the franchise, but Ditka’s whistle held no sway with a defense that took all of its cues from Ryan, architect of the eight-man front with a chippy motto: “Let’s get introduced to the other team’s backup quarterback today.”
Chicago’s “46” defense was named not after a scheme but a Bears safety who wore jersey No. 46. Doug Plank embodied everything Ryan craved in an athlete. He was fearless and ruthless and rugged and intelligent. Most of all — between the snap of the ball and the whistle at the end of the play — he was crazy, a trait that tends to lead to an occasional exchange of punches.
“Buddy told us if one of us got into a fight, don’t hold our guy back,” Plank has recalled. “Hold their guy back, so our guy could hit him.”
The defining moment of Ryan’s career was after the Bears beat the Patriots, 46-10, in Super Bowl XX. The defensive players hoisted him on their shoulders, alongside the offensive players who did the same with Ditka.
Summitt, whose 1,098 victories are the most of any college basketball coach, enjoyed more traditional honors. In 2012, the winner of eight national championships was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, joining Bill Russell, Dean Smith and John Wooden as the only Freedom medalists whose accomplishments were exclusively related to basketball.
“I remember every player — every single one — who wore the Tennessee orange, a shade our rivals hate, a bold and aggressive color that you can usually find on a roadside crew or in a correctional institution,” Summitt wrote in her 2013 autobiography. “But to us the color is a flag of pride, because it identifies us as Lady Vols and, therefore, as women of an unmistakable type: Fighters.
“I remember how many of them fought for a better life for themselves. I just met them halfway.”
Pat Summitt and Buddy Ryan shared so much in common, it’s sad to consider they probably didn’t get to know each other before their deaths on Tuesday morning.
Then again, there’s always the possibility they were sharing some stories on Tuesday afternoon, standing in line for admittance to the ultimate luxury suite.