Lynn Bria could have been forgiven a silent groan.
The Stetson coach had grown up making occasional five-hour drives with family members to watch Pat Summitt coach in Knoxville, Tennessee, less a Lady Vols fan than simply a Summitt fan.
Now, after seeing Tennessee pop up opposite Stetson in the NCAA tournament bracket, Bria would lead a team against Summitt in Thompson-Boling Arena in the postseason.
Idols are one thing, but coaching is a pragmatic business. And Summitt didn’t win more games than any coach in Division I history without tacking on a great many losses to the résumés of those who occupied the opposite bench.
“Quite honestly,” Bria recalled, “I wasn’t real happy about having to play Tennessee.”
At the time in her second season at Stetson, coaching a team that played well together but lacked the size and speed she hoped to eventually recruit, the romantic appeal of taking on a legendary figure yielded to the harsh reality of a foregone conclusion.
“To play there and coach against one of the greatest coaches, arguably the greatest coach ever in women’s basketball, you’re honored,” Bria continued. “But it was bittersweet, knowing where we were going. We always felt like Tennessee fans were so classy, and what coach Summitt had built there was something our players really wanted to see.
“We were not happy about having to play them, but our players were excited at the same time, if that makes any sense.”
As part of the lengthy list that makes up Summitt’s basketball legacy, what came next barely registers. Summitt won eight NCAA championships. She won 1,098 games. She made a major university synonymous with women’s basketball. She took an adjective that elsewhere demeaned or at least diminished and turned the very nickname Lady Vols into a symbol of empowerment. Amidst all of that history on a grand scale, a 65-point first-round win against Stetson in 2011 is historically significant only in the margin, one of the largest in tournament history, and because it was among the final wins before Summitt revealed she had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.
But unremarkable as that entry in the record book now appears from afar, it finished with a handshake and a few words of praise for the season that earned Stetson a place on the court.
“I remember that distinctly,” Bria said. “It meant a lot to me.”
In trying to process death, we turn to those who knew a person best in life. We ask those people to be our guides, to offer context and help us understand someone as we no longer can come to know them ourselves. But it is its own measure of Summitt’s life that those who didn’t know her as well are no less profound as narrators.
Summitt influenced the lives of those around her, including those whose paths she crossed only briefly or indirectly.
“That always stood out to me, that she’s firm but she’s fair. … When she coached them, that’s how she coached them. That’s how she lived her every day.”
Stetson coach Lynn Bria on Pat Summitt
Bria didn’t play for Summitt at Tennessee. She isn’t part of Summitt’s vast coaching tree. She knew Summitt only a little, eventually sharing conversations on the recruiting trail, but before that, from the letters she sent the icon as a young player and aspiring coach. How many hundreds, if not thousands, of such letters did Summitt receive from people with little or no connection to her?
Just as she remembers the handshake, Bria remembers that Summitt always wrote her back.
In fact, it isn’t the specific sentences in the letters she recalls, handwritten in the unmistakable script of one of the greatest coaches who ever lived. It isn’t any words of advice or tidings of good fortune extended. She still has the letters, of course, now sadly part of the historical record after Summitt’s passing. But their significance isn’t in the paper or even the words, as much weight as they carried in the moment.
Paper grows brittle. Ink fades. What resonates still is that Summitt sent them at all.
The youngest of nine children — “born into a team,” as she put it — Bria knew from an early age that she wanted to coach. She played at a small college in Charleston, West Virginia, but she was just 24 years old when she landed her first head coaching position in 1993, at Division II Texas Women’s University. It is not entirely coincidental that the story so mirrors that of Summitt, hired at Tennessee at a similar age. The athletic director who hired Bria in Texas was Judy Southard, who was also Summitt’s assistant for a season in the 1970s.
Summitt blazed a trail for multiple generations of women in coaching, one that took Bria from the trial and error of that first stop to head coaching positions at UCF, Ohio and eventually Stetson. Women’s basketball is today full of people who followed that path in one form or another.
“I can’t believe they pay me for this,” Bria said of her profession. “The demands of this, you do have to love it. If you don’t love it, I don’t think that it can work or you can do it.”
She doesn’t coach the same way as Summitt tactically, her influences instead spread across the entirety of her basketball experience. Any coach who tries to be Summitt at the expense of themselves will fail. What she offered was an example of what it means to stay true to what it is that you believe in.
“I think the demands on the players at Tennessee were extremely high, and she just wouldn’t lower the bar,” Bria said. “You either met that or you weren’t going to make it there. She would never, ever lower the bar. …
“Her values were what they were, and she didn’t waver on them.”
The letters eventually ceased, but memories of those recruiting conversations remain. On one such occasion, Bria asked about that almost obstinate rigidity, curious how Summitt, famous for a glare that foretold the one-way conversation that would follow behind closed doors, made it work. Insecure martinets are a dime a dozen in coaching, after all. Legendary and legendarily beloved icons are not.
Summitt replied that it came down to being firm but fair, one useless without the other.
“That always stood out to me, that she’s firm but she’s fair,” Bria said. “And within that is a lot of communication. That always stuck with me. I really think it was that simple for her, and that’s what she did. What she was saying to me was exactly what she lived.
“When she coached them, that’s how she coached them. That’s how she lived her every day.”