They'll be honored in Manhattan Tuesday night, at a red-carpet gala featuring such previous winners as Chris Evert, Sugar Ray Leonard and Wayne Gretzky, for a host of additional reasons as well.
Of course there's an element of the lifetime achievement award in SI's choice. How could there not be? Summitt has put her stamp on women's basketball for 38 seasons, from the days when the sport was sometimes referred to as "women's extramurals," and her Lady Vols were asked, during a 1979 game at LSU when their prelim to the men went into overtime, to move to an auxiliary gym so the guys could tip off on time.
Over that span she has won eight national titles along with all those games, while graduating every last young woman to play four years for her.
As for Krzyzewski, with four more seasons he will complete 40 years as a collegiate head coach. He won his fourth and unlikeliest national title in 2010, and -- oh, by the way -- sandwiched around it two almost criminally underappreciated international gold medals, at the 2008 Olympics and 2010 World Championships, as head coach of a U.S. national team program that had been in steady decline. No other coach has ever won the Olympics, the NCAAs and the Worlds -- and Coach K did so in a span of 26 months.
But each put an emphatic mark on 2011 that argues for highlighting them now. In Krzyzewski's case, it was the dramatic way he set the alltime Division I men's victory mark, with a defeat of Michigan State in November. His 903rd victory came on the grandest of stages, Madison Square Garden, while the man he passed, his college coach and mentor, Bob Knight, watched from courtside.
For her part, Summitt didn't merely touch off widespread sympathy in August when she announced that she would continue to coach despite receiving a diagnosis of early-onset dementia. Realizing the role she had been thrust into, as the public face of a condition that bewilders and stigmatizes sufferers and families alike, she chose to embrace it. Last month she launched the Pat Summitt Foundation to raise funds and awareness about Alzheimer's. If she takes up this cause with even half the energy and commitment with which she has championed Lady Vols basketball and women's sports at large, she'll be a worthy companion to other sports figures who have personified high-profile crusades against disease, from Lance Armstrong to Magic Johnson.
Moreover, by recognizing Krzyzewski and Summitt this year we're setting the table for 2012. That's when Coach K will bring a team of American pros to the London Olympics as the presumptive favorite; and when the coach who insists that her players call her "Pat" will mark, with a well-deserved sense of proprietorship, the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, the law that touched off the boom in women's sports that has delivered so many iconic female stars, teams and moments.
I tell their stories jointly in the forthcoming issue of SI, and it wasn't the easiest assignment. By the time editors settled on the choice, each coach was deep into his and her season; one reason the two are so successful is the discipline with which they resist outside distractions like requests for in-depth interviews between November and March.
Fortunately for me, over the years each has been candid about how they run their programs. Though Summitt hasn't granted one-on-ones since her diagnosis, she has been strikingly honest about her background, philosophy and methods in a recently released three-DVD biopic, as well as in two books she has written with my former SI colleague Sally Jenkins. Her son, Tyler, a sophomore walk-on with the Tennessee men's team who grew up watching game tape with his mom, is a terrific interview, every bit as frank and articulate as she. He'll be quite a coach in his own right someday.
In the case of Coach K, he came to Durham essentially when I arrived at SI, and as a regular on the college basketball beat I've made a three-decades-long study of the man and his methods. This year, despite a brutal early-season stretch in which the Blue Devils traveled to and from Hawaii and played eight games in 18 days, he made himself available on the phone; since 1984, when we spoke on the eve of the ACC Tournament final, I've found Krzyzewski on the phone to be better than most coaches in person. Meanwhile SI's Tim Layden, on medical leave when this assignment surfaced, proved to be a team player equal of any Blue Devil or Lady Vol; Layden shared with me notes from an October visit to Duke, during which Krzyzewski had opened up to him about his career, philosophy and relationships.
As Krzyzewski and Summitt join John Wooden and Dean Smith as the only college basketball coaches to receive the Greek amphora emblematic of this honor, I was struck by how many things the two have in common. You'd expect as much; there is a kind of formula for success that endures, whether you're coaching men or women.
But there's also a stark difference between the two that I explore in this week's issue. Rather than reveal it now, I'll let you discover it in your mailbox, on the newsstand, or on your tablet. But I will say this: Krzyzewski and Summitt don't part company over Xs and Os so much as over Xs and Ys, and the gender-bending side to all of us.