Pat Summitt's son steps out of basketball legend's shadow

Story highlights

  • Tyler Summitt begins his basketball head coaching career at age 24
  • His mother, Pat Summitt, is the winningest college basketball coach
  • Tyler leads Louisiana Tech women's program, once a rival of his mom's Lady Vols
  • Sidelined by Alzheimer's, she backs her son's career choice: "I love him unconditionally"

Ruston, Louisiana (CNN)Tyler Summitt pauses inside the tunnel, staring out at the players in sky blue jerseys taking the court. At 24, the son of one of the greatest basketball coaches in history prepares to step into his own spotlight.

His mother, Pat Summitt, planned to be here for her son's debut, but can't make it.
"Be yourself," she tells him by phone. "Trust your judgment."
    Tyler's life has built to this moment. The away games with his mom and her Tennessee Lady Vols. The hours in the film room. The intimate dinners with her players and staff.
    He grew up immersed in basketball -- almost born in a prized recruit's living room. Eight days later he attended his first practice. At 6 months, he sat up in his stroller and pointed down court, a much cuter expression on his face than his mom's infamous scowl.
    In kindergarten, when classmates wanted to be firefighters, police officers and doctors, Tyler always had the same unflinching ambition: "I want to coach basketball."
    It drove his mom crazy. Be an astronaut, a scientist, anything but a coach.
    The stress, the commitment, the time away from family. "Do you know what it takes?" she asked him.
    That view changed with time. His mother now brims with pride.
    "I guess inside I always expected he would want to coach," she tells CNN. "I just hoped, like any parent, that he would find something he loved to do."
    It's been two years since Alzheimer's forced Pat Summitt, now 62, to retire far too soon, leaving the game with eight national titles and 1,098 victories -- the most wins of any basketball coach in NCAA history.
    As the young Coach Summitt embarks on his career, he says he and his mom don't talk much about Xs and Os any more: "It's a mother-son conversation more than a mentor-protégé conversation."
    His mom always boasted her only child was her greatest achievement. When she learned of her illness, she cried, knowing it would prevent her from seeing him reach many of life's milestones.
    If it's true basketball teaches life lessons, he must now draw upon everything she imparted.
    From deep in the bowels of Thomas Assembly Center, Tyler Summitt watches his players run warmup drills on the court. Growing up, he used to circle the Lady Vols' games against Louisiana Tech on the calendar. The Lady Techsters were one of his mom's most heated rivals.
    Now, he's coaching the team that used to stoke her ire.
    He has piercing blue eyes, cherub-red cheeks and an endearing confidence. He doesn't run from comparisons to his mother, he embraces them: a loving son wanting nothing more than to carry on her legacy.
    He knows his mother lost her first game 40 years ago by a single point -- ultimately a moot issue in a stellar career. It was the start of a process, one that turned his mother into a legend and transformed sports for women everywhere.
    Keeping a watchful eye on his team, he wonders if they'll win tonight -- and whether this could be the start of another historic chapter.
    "Only God knows," he says.
    A shared obsession
    Tyler Summitt cried in his room, a basketball underneath each arm. He was a sixth grader and had just been cut from his middle school team. His mom told him he would have to find motivation from within. "You'll have to start your own engine," she said. If he wanted her help, he would have to ask for it.
    That was a pivotal moment for the boy. He realized he couldn't coast on the Summitt name. He would have to work hard, if not harder, to prove things weren't handed to him.
    He would never be dropped from a team again. "I'm very grateful to that middle school coach for cutting me," he says. "I thought I could succeed just because of my last name and that I'd be given things in life."
    Pat Summitt never let on to her boy, but quietly she seethed: "What coach in East Tennessee would cut my son?!"
    As he entered his early teens, he grew obsessed with learning as much about the game as possible. His mother's resistance to his ambitions only intensified.
    But the summer before his junior year of high school, Tyler approached his mom. He wanted her to know he was serious about coaching. She stared into his eyes and saw herself, an eager young student of the game with passion, desire and a will to win.
    "OK," she said, "now I'm going to help you if you really want me to help you."
    Tyler filled his laptop with defensive sets, offensive plays, interviews of players and coaches. He'd quiz anyone he could about basketball:
    When you go from assistant coach to head coach, what happens?
    How do you fight complacency once you've done it for 10 years?

    What did you do in your first season? Would you change anything in retrospect?
    It helps when you have access to dozens of the greatest women to ever play the game, many of whom have gone on to coach their own teams. He probed other coaching legends, from UCLA's John Wooden to Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.
    The biggest lesson learned, he says, is the best coaches don't talk about winning. "They never talk about the championships," he says. "They talk about the relationships with players."
    His mother's influence on the women's game is undeniable. When she began coaching the Lady Vols, she washed the team's uniforms, drove the team van and was relegated to second-class gyms. In the male-dominated world of collegiate athletics, she fought for her players to be given equal treatment.
    She built a program that packed a 20,000-seat arena in Knoxville, Tennessee. She rode her players hard, told them to take the skills she gave them and smash through glass ceilings.
    "Basketball was a way for her to instill confidence in young women," Tyler says, "a way for her to help women try to get on the same level as men."
    Most people, he says, only saw the fierce look she gave players and how hard she pushed them during games. When she got angry, her head leaned back like a viper ready to bite.
    They never saw her gentler side, those behind-the-scenes moments in the film room or hosting team dinners. His mother was 43 when she received her first hug from her father; she made sure her son grew up just the opposite, constantly telling him how much she loved him.
    "When I say dedicated mother, I mean not just to me but to everybody -- to her staff, to her players, to her former players, anybody in her program," he says. "A loyal friend."
    Learning to dance
    Mickie DeMoss was there for Tyler's birth. Now she's there for the birth of his career.
    Tyler Summitt stands with his assistant Mickie DeMoss, who also served as his mother's assistant coach for 18 seasons. "I've been around a lot of coaches, and he ranks right up there in my book," she says.
    When Tyler took over the women's program at Louisiana Tech, he called up his mother's long-time assistant. DeMoss stuck by his mother for 18 years, present for six of Tennessee's eight national titles. DeMoss also starred at Louisiana Tech in the 1970s and has headed programs at Florida and Kentucky.
    The decision to join Tyler Summitt at her alma mater was a no-brainer.
    "The dearest thing to Pat's heart is her son," she says, "and I felt like that's a way I can somehow pay her back, and in turn help him as well."
    DeMoss has a rare glimpse into history: seeing her boss grow into a legend and now witnessing the legend's biggest protégé mature into a man.
    In many ways, it was Tyler who helped humanize Pat Summitt. She was already 16 years into her career when he was born in 1990. Becoming a mother, DeMoss says, allowed the coach to better connect with her players.
    "She never mellowed with her principles and the way she ran the program," DeMoss says, "but she was more compassionate in her understanding if things were going wrong in their lives."
    DeMoss played her part in helping raise Tyler, often acting as the crazy aunt. She would say a couple extra cuss words in his presence to see if he'd bite. On road trips, she taught the youngster how to dance: "Tyler, if you're ever gonna attract the women, you have to be a good dancer."
    "DeMoss, he's only 4!" Coach Summitt shouted.
    As Louisiana Tech's head coach, Tyler Summitt immediately instituted some of his mother's rules: All players must sit in the first three rows of the classroom, and no one can wear baseball caps.
    DeMoss tried to convince her new boss it was a different era and that he might want to be more flexible.
    "Would Mom have changed her standards?" he asked.
    "No," DeMoss said.
    "Well, then."
    DeMoss is surprised how much of his mother she sees in Tyler: the way she ran things, the way she cared for players, the way she thought. He's even got her same obstinate streak.
    "Pat would always tell the kids, 'You may think you're stubborn, but you've never even met a woman as stubborn as me, so don't test me.'
    "He's very stubborn like that," DeMoss says. "Don't test him, because you'll be doing pushups the entire practice."
    He isn't a yeller like his mother. He won't "chew and chew and chew" on a player. But DeMoss says he will fight for them on and off the court -- and do what he feels is best.
    DeMoss points out another quality he shares with his mother: She, too, was in her early 20s when she became head coach.
    "The only thing Tyler doesn't have, obviously, is experience," DeMoss says. "But as far as having that innate ability to teach the game, to know how to motivate players, he has all that. I've been around a lot of coaches, and he ranks right up there in my book."
    When she talks with her old boss these days, DeMoss fills her in on how Tyler is doing: "You did a lot of things right with that boy."
    Mom always deflects the praise. "Aww, well, he works hard."
    Texts and tears
    Tyler grew up surrounded mostly by women, from the players on his mom's teams to her coaching staff. His dad was there too, and still is, though Tyler's parents divorced when he was in his teens.
    The main person in his life now is his wife, AnDe Ragsdale Summitt.
    The two first met in sixth grade. When he got cut from the team, she says, it was the talk of school: "Everybody was surprised." She didn't know him too well back then. Their romance wouldn't begin until their junior year of high school, when he made a rather innocuous comment.
    "I like your tennis shoes," he told her during study hall at Knoxville's prestigious Webb School.
    The shoes were white Nikes with pink and green accents. "Something that a boy would probably not like," she recalls. Another hint that he really liked her: The Lady Vols wore Adidas.
    Soon, they were dating. The two were texting so much that her parents nicknamed her phone "The Damn Pink Thing."
    She was drawn to him because of his ambition and his big heart. "The way he cares for people -- that's one of his greatest qualities." He feels the same about her.
    AnDe was intimidated by his mother when they met, but that quickly changed. "Right off the bat, we both got along really well. She was always very kind to me and welcoming."
    She and Tyler have been together ever since. He graduated cum laude from Webb, where he starred as a point guard. They attended the University of Tennessee together. He played on the male practice squad against his mom's team his freshman year and earned his way as a walk-on for the men's basketball team the next season.
    The couple celebrated their first anniversary on June 1.
    He credits his wife with bolstering his belief in God. His mom grew up steeped in the Bible in rural Tennessee; her family never missed a day of church. She tried to instill that same love of God in her son. On road trips, they watched church services online.
    But it was AnDe, he says, who "really helped me grow in my faith."
    His reliance on God only grew as Alzheimer's began chipping away at his mother's memory.
    He was 20 when he accompanied her to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in May 2011. Doctors confirmed she had mild signs of "early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type." In her 2013 memoir, "Sum It Up," she said she and Tyler initially tried to "out-tough the other." Then one day, Tyler came to her bedroom crying. He crawled into her bed. The two held each other and wept.
    "We had to figure out a game plan moving forward," he recalls.
    He read everything he could about the disease. He downloaded brain teasers to keep her mind occupied. They formed the Pat Summitt Foundation, dedicated to finding a cure for Alzheimer's.
    She still golfs, swims and exercises nearly every day, but he doesn't deny the emotional and mental toll the disease has taken on his mother.
    "Seeing what's going on is sad, but when you look at what you can control, I think there's a bigger purpose for all this," he says. "To all the families with Alzheimer's, there's nothing to be ashamed about. It's not your fault.
    "It's intimidating because you don't want to talk about it, but by not talking about it, you give it power."
    When he called earlier this year to let her know Louisiana Tech was interested in hiring him, she lit up. Alzheimer's has robbed Pat Summitt of many things, but not her competitive fire. She flashed back to those days when she and Coach Leon Barmore's teams dominated the women's game. Her first national title loss, in 1981, was to Louisiana Tech. Her first national title victory in 1987 was over the Lady Techsters.
    "Leon and I used to have some battles down there," she told him.
    Tyler knew what he had to do: Coach his mom's rival.
    His mother is off limits to the media these days. She answered questions for this story through a longtime family friend. "I am very proud of Tyler for following his dreams," she says. "He has the drive and has embraced the work ethic it will take to be successful."
    On those days when Tyler struggles with his mother's decline, he seeks his wife's support. She provides "a shoulder to cry on when I'm trying to be strong for my mom."
    And he turns to his faith. When he signs autographs, he includes his favorite scripture, Colossians 3:17: "And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus."
    Unconditional love
    Perhaps it was meant to be. A son trying to forge his identity in the shadow of his mother's legacy needed to face his first battle alone. He knows he will never escape being compared with her. And he's fine with that.
    "I don't dislike the comparisons to my mom," he says. "I just have the ultimate respect for my mom."
    Of course, he would prefer she be here, and she would like to be here, too. "I love him unconditionally," she says.
    He strolls down a narrow hall to the team's locker room. Awaiting him are nine players; one is just six months his junior. Twenty-one Lady Techsters have played in the WNBA. "Who's next?" it says on the wall.
    The team is preparing for its first match, an exhibition game against Mississippi College. The game won't count in the record books, but it marks Tyler's first time on the sidelines as head coach.
    He stands in front of a white board, detailing the game plan.
    "Our message is dominate each possession. That's what we're trying to do," he says. "What they do does not determine our energy, our intensity. Right?"
    He urges consistency and focus. "It's Lady Techster basketball every single possession," he says. "Alright. Let's go."
    There's a clap of hands and high fives.
    The Lady Techsters were 12-20 last season, a far cry from their heyday. Tyler Summitt values tradition and knows he's got work to do to bring back the glory days when Louisiana Tech won three national titles in the 1980s.
    He steps across the hardwoods. He thinks about how blessed he is -- and about his mother and all that she means.
    Over the next 40 minutes, he never sits. Not once. He stands, arms folded. He paces. He puts his hands on his hips. He calls to various players and stabs his right index finger into the air.
    The outcome, at least for tonight, is never really in doubt. The Lady Techsters lead from start to finish, cruising to a 49-point victory, 85-36. A win seems only natural. Like mother, like son.
    The season begins now, a new Coach Summitt taking the court.
    Follow CNN's Wayne Drash on Twitter or contact him by email.