Tyler Summitt finds calling as coach

In August, Tyler Summitt was meticulously prepared -- his standard operating procedure -- to propose to his high school sweetheart, AnDe Ragsdale. The fact that he'd recently undergone an emergency appendectomy was of no consequence. Even with quite literally a tender side, he showed his tender side.

"He was still able to go on a walk with me," Ragsdale said of how Tyler popped the question. "He had this beautiful Bible made for me, and he read a verse out of it. On the front of it he had engraved, 'Mr. and Mrs. Summitt.' It was perfect; it was simple and sweet, and that's what I love. He was great … despite having a really sore abdomen."

Indeed, once Tyler has a plan, virtually nothing is going to stop him from seeing it through. Remind you of anybody?

Tyler, the only child of Pat Summitt, is a young man now: engaged to be married and off to a flying start in his career. Which happens to be the same job his mother did for the last 38 years: coaching basketball. Tyler is an assistant at Marquette in Milwaukee, forging a trail all his own.

Women's hoops fans of a certain age remember baby Tyler in his mother's arms after her Tennessee team won the 1991 NCAA title. They recall the dapper little boy on the bench who took so seriously the chore of placing an orange footstool in the middle of huddles for his mom to sit on during timeouts. They watched him grow into a teenager who played basketball.

When he was in high school, Tyler realized that coaching wasn't just something he felt an affinity for because of his mom. It was his calling, too.

"I'd been watching film all my life," Tyler said. "When I was a kid, I would really have no idea what my mom and other coaches were saying when they were pointing to those 10 people on the court. But as time went on, I could start seeing the same things they did. And maybe even point out a few things myself. I could really understand it."

As Pat said, "Once Tyler started seeing things exactly as I did on film, I knew he was ready to coach."

Tyler guided youth basketball teams and was a regular at Tennessee's men's and women's summer camps.

"I knew I had a passion for it," he said. "Basketball, and the lessons I learned from it, really helped me in my life. I wanted to share that with student-athletes."

Pat Summitt's coaching tree is vast and spread across the country. Any number of her former assistants or players would have given Tyler a foot in the door with their programs. But when Tyler began his job hunt, he intentionally veered away from Tennessee roots to make his own way.

Marquette coach Terri Mitchell admired Pat, but they didn't actually know one another very well.

"I'm not going to pretend we were great old friends or anything," Mitchell said. "We'd chat cordially when we'd cross paths."

Which didn't happen often, other than sometimes on the recruiting trail. Marquette and Tennessee have met just twice: in 1996, when Mitchell was in her first year as the Golden Eagles' head coach, and in the 2011 NCAA tournament second round.

Tyler did his homework on Marquette and Mitchell, though, and was impressed with both. However, Tyler's odds when he contacted Mitchell weren't good. She already had a couple of very strong candidates in mind for her open assistant's position. And she readily admits she was wary about Tyler's age. He had graduated from Tennessee in three years and was still just 21 when he applied at Marquette in April. He wouldn't turn 22 until September.

"He called, and literally it took maybe 10 minutes and I knew I wanted to bring him in for an interview," Mitchell said. "I got over the age issue right away. I felt like I was talking to someone in his 30s.

"I moved quickly. We talked Friday, and I brought him in Sunday. Hearing what he believes, his philosophies, his views on offense and defense … his eagerness to do the job was just pouring out of him."

Like-minded son

What's so striking about Tyler is that he has so many of his mom's characteristics despite having a significantly different life than she did growing up.

Pat was born in rural Tennessee in the 1950s to a farming family that raised tobacco and other crops, along with dairy cows. Discipline and intense physical labor were, frankly, requirements if you wanted to eat. Pat embraced relentless expectations and maintained them after she left the farm. But you could say she really had little choice but to work so hard in her youth.

By contrast, Tyler grew up in a spacious home in Knoxville. His father, R.B. Summitt, is a banker, and his mother is one of the most respected figures in college sports.

"Look, Tyler could have been a spoiled brat," said Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, who has known him since he was born. "But he wasn't that type of kid, and Pat wouldn't have allowed it. He saw how hard she worked and the results she got. No, he didn't have to throw hay bales or those things, but he understood the value of work."

Tyler often has told the story of how, when he was cut from his middle school basketball team, Pat told him that if he wore out a couple of basketballs practicing, he'd make it on the squad the next year. Which he did.

Mitchell has found that Tyler never needs a nudge to get going. To the contrary, he has to have gentle reminders to slow down.

"I had to actually send him home during the summer; he was getting in at 5 or 6 in the morning," Mitchell said. "He is so committed, but sometimes it's my job to tell him, 'OK, you need to relax just a little.'"

Pat was 22 when she was hired as Tennessee's head coach in 1974. It was a vastly different era in women's athletics, but even in those days that was a lot on the plate of someone so young.

"When I took the job, I had to learn on the fly," Pat said. "I think that Tyler has been learning all his life. But this experience at Marquette will prepare him to be a head coach, because he's at a completely different program and in a different conference."

While at Tennessee, Tyler walked onto the men's basketball team and played for both Bruce Pearl and Cuonzo Martin. So he has spent a lot of time in the men's hoops world, too, and considered going that route to begin his career. He had opportunities to do so at some prominent programs.

But the relationship component of women's basketball was the deciding factor for Tyler. There's no "one-and-done" aspect to the women's game; players usually spend four (or five) years in school and generally get to know their coaches well. Tyler saw how players from decades past would still come to Tennessee practices to visit his mom, and how the time in her program influenced the rest of their lives.

Plus, Tyler felt he had a good understanding of the psyche of female athletes, and how their sense of self-esteem/self-confidence is critical to performance. He mentions a saying that while not universally true, probably has truth to it: Men have to play well to feel good about themselves, whereas women have to feel good about themselves to play well.

He has an appreciation of not just Lady Vol history but that of women's basketball as a whole. It's clear where Tyler's admiration for strong women comes from, and that respect is a key part of both his personal life and career.

"Somebody once asked me if I was ever jealous of all the women that Tyler was always around at Tennessee," said Ragsdale, who has been dating him for five years. "And I was like, 'No! They helped him develop into this awesome man that I get to be around.' Definitely, that was a huge attraction for me about him. He's really not like a lot of other guys, especially his age, and I noticed that right away."

Ragsdale, like Tyler, is a native of Knoxville, and she is finishing her senior year at Tennessee. On her holiday visit to Milwaukee, she and Tyler -- two Southern kids enjoying a very different climate -- went out one day to make snow angels.

"We were the only ones outside," she said, laughing. "And we figured that was because everyone else there is just used to it."

Facing tough times

Ragsdale, who played soccer in high school, is majoring in kinesiology and wants to be a physical therapist. She and Tyler are both driven people, but she's the mellower of the two, which helps balance him out. She's also the one to whom he can reveal the emotions he feels most deeply.

Tyler saw signs that alarmed him before his mother's 2011 diagnosis of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.

"There were things that somebody else who didn't know her as well as he did maybe wouldn't have noticed," Ragsdale said. "But he said, 'This isn't like her.'"

Tyler had hoped perhaps one day he and his mother would coach together. Certainly, lots of Tennessee fans had that vision, too. But her illness meant that a career most people figured would extend another decade was altered. Pat moved into an emeritus role at Tennessee following the 2011-12 season, before her 60th birthday in June.

Tyler educated himself about the disease and tackled the treatment head-on with his mother. He was heavily involved in the setup of the Pat Summitt Foundation, which benefits Alzheimer's research. It would be understandable for him to feel grief, melancholy and even anger about his mother's illness and the changes it brought to their lives. But Tyler hasn't succumbed to those emotions.

"People say that he shows a strong front, but it's really not a front," Ragsdale. "He's the type of person who, if a problem arises, even something as tragic as Alzheimer's, he doesn't mourn over it. He says, 'Let's figure out how to deal with it.' That was what he was showing to the world, but that was all I saw, too.

"But finally, I had to sit him down and say, 'OK, you've got to tell me what's really going on inside your head and your heart, because nobody can keep it this much together when you're dealing with everything you are.' He couldn't let anything out, because he had to be strong. So I said, 'You can cry around me. Or if you want, I'll cry for you.'"

Tyler said one of his mother's greatest lessons to him was the way she balanced a demanding career in the public eye and still showed so much devotion to her loved ones.

"It comes down to how you prioritize your time," Tyler said. "My priorities are my faith, my family and my passion for basketball. I'm not known for doing much else outside of those three."

And in Ragsdale, Tyler has someone who shares his priorities.

"We've been dating since high school, so she was there when my mom was winning national championships and was at the height of her career," Tyler said. "She went through my parents' divorce with me. She got to know my mom before Alzheimer's, which is a big thing for me.

"Because she's seen the transformation that my mom and I have gone through. Anybody who's a coach has to have somebody you can sometimes lean on, because in our profession, the highs are pretty high but the lows can be pretty low. AnDe is that person for me."

His own journey

Tyler said his X's and O's philosophies are an amalgam of all he has experienced watching and playing basketball. As a coach, he's definitely not a carbon copy of his mother. Although Mitchell jokes that she has seen from Tyler "the stare" that his mom was famous for when she wasn't happy with a player (or referee).

Tyler also has traits like his father, including an affable, people-friendly confidence in communicating.

"Fair or not fair, the children of coaches get a lot of spotlight," said Baylor's Kim Mulkey, who once sought out Pat's advice about combining motherhood and coaching. "Tyler embraced that spotlight; he wasn't afraid of it. His mother and his dad raised him well. He's a natural, and he'll be a head coach at a very young age."

Mitchell agrees. She appreciates Tyler's championship-oriented mentality. He was born a Vol, but his focus now is fully on the Golden Eagles. Marquette, which has made seven NCAA appearances under Mitchell, is 7-5 this season. The Golden Eagles have been hit very hard by injuries and have just one senior, but Mitchell has an upbeat, "just keep going" mentality. Tyler fits right in.

Associate head coach Michelle Nason and assistant Christina Quaye, a former Marquette player, are also on Mitchell's staff with Tyler. Just as Pat was known for empowering her assistants, Mitchell does the same thing as a mentor.

"It is fun to watch Tyler coach, because I can see him making the same changes in games that I would make," Pat said. "Terri has obviously put a lot of trust in him and given him a lot of responsibility, and he is grateful for the opportunity."

In December, Pat visited Milwaukee as Marquette had a "We Back Pat" promotion at the Golden Eagles' game against Toledo to raise funds for Summitt's foundation.

"When his mom came out and spent the week with us, I was so touched by his love for her," Mitchell said of Tyler. "It told me everything about who he is. We all remember the photos of him when he was little with his mom. I see the man he is now. I love the connection he has to her legacy. He is very proud of her.

"But he's going to pave his own path. He's doing that right now at Marquette. For however long that path stays at Marquette, he'll do great things for us. And he's going to have great success in women's basketball."