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Schnepf: Amy Ruley remembers Pat Summitt as the 'godmother' of women’s basketball

FARGO -- It was the fall of 2008 when Amy Ruley accepted an invitation to an informal gathering at the home of Pat Summitt -- the same Pat Summitt who eventually accumulated the most wins in NCAA basketball history of any coach, male or female.Th...

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FARGO - It was the fall of 2008 when Amy Ruley accepted an invitation to an informal gathering at the home of Pat Summitt - the same Pat Summitt who eventually accumulated the most wins in NCAA basketball history of any coach, male or female.
The Knoxville, Tenn., residence of such a legend was about what one would imagine it to be. Ruley saw a big outdoor basketball court in the backyard, a pool with a pool house, a video room, a dock leading down to the river and Summitt’s golden retriever dogs.
“It was a really neat place,” recalled Ruley, who herself became a legendary women’s basketball coach at North Dakota State from 1979 to 2008.
Those were just a few of the memories that were swirling through Ruley’s head Tuesday, June 28. It was the day Summitt - after a five-year battle with Alzheimer’s - passed away at the age of 64.
“When you say women’s basketball, you think Pat Summitt,” Ruley said. “They just go together. She is the godmother of women’s basketball.”
The godmother, from 1974 to 2012 as Tennessee’s women’s basketball coach, won eight NCAA championships. She was the first NCAA coach, and one of four college coaches overall, to achieve at least 1,000 wins. She never had a losing season and ended up winning 1,098 of her 1,306 games - an amazing 84-percent clip.
And here was Ruley, who produced an amazing 671-198 record at NDSU, listening to Summitt tell stories in her house. Summitt told her guests how tough her dad was while growing up in Clarksville, Tenn. She learned how to get even tougher playing games with her three older brothers - each of whom got athletic scholarships to colleges back in a time when Summitt’s parents had to pay her way to college.
This was before Title IX when there were no scholarships for women. This was an era when women weren’t supposed to exude that competitive nature like her brothers displayed. And she certainly wasn’t supposed to be tough like her dad when she started coaching at Tennessee.
But that’s what Summitt did - becoming one of the toughest coaches in college basketball history, men or women. It’s easy to picture Summitt giving her players an icy stare in response to a poor play.
“I liked the fact she could be aggressive and competitive and set high standards for her players … and for the most part that it was acceptable,” said Ruley, herself known as a no-nonsense type of coach. “Back then, most women worried how that would be perceived. ‘Will I be associated with the ‘B’ word?’ She set the standard that there is no such thing.
“There were probably a few critics but I think she made it OK. It felt comfortable to be aggressive. I certainly didn’t have any problem with that.”
Even before that informal gathering, Ruley got to know Summitt working on professional organizations like the USA Basketball committee where they evaluated players together and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association where the discussed potential rule changes.
But no matter how big Summitt became, Ruley said she never looked down on her colleagues.
“She made everybody feel the same,” Ruley said. “You could tell she bought into the notion that ‘We are coaches and we are all in this together. We need to support each other.’ There was that camaraderie.”
Back in 2003 when she was in Knoxville to be inducted in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, Ruley got a chance to talk to Summitt about NDSU’s transition from Division II to Division I. That’s when Ruley asked Summitt if she would be willing to play a game in Fargo.
Summitt leaned over to her assistant coach and said: “You know we could do that. Let’s work on that.”
But by the time Tennessee got serious about playing a game in the Fargodome, Ruley’s coaching career came to an end. And three years later, Summitt was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Suddenly, the woman who created more visibility for women’s basketball than anyone else, was not to be seen or heard of during this past NCAA women’s tournament.
“You probably knew things weren’t going well,” said Ruley, who started coaching at NDSU five years after Summitt started at Tennessee. “You aspired to be like Tennessee. She was a role model for most women who were coaching at that time. She was one of a kind.”
Schnepf is the sports editor of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is a part of Forum News Service. Reach him at kschnepf@forumcomm.com and follow hin on Twitter at kevin_schnepf.

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