The award, named in recognition of former President Gerald Ford, honors an individual who has provided significant leadership as an advocate for intercollegiate athletics over the course of their career.
Pat Summitt, in her 38th season leading the Lady Vols, is widely known as the foremost ambassador for women's basketball.
NCAA President Mark Emmert, who will present the award at this year's NCAA Convention, said Summitt's contributions to intercollegiate athletics over almost four decades merit distinction.
"Coach Summitt has been recognized numerous times for her contributions to women's basketball - and rightly so," Emmert said. "The Ford Award honors her for what she has meant to intercollegiate athletics through her career and for the positive example she continues to set today.
"Pat embraces student-athlete success in all aspects of college life and models the behaviors that help young people become great citizens and leaders after their playing days have ended. Her commitment to excellence both in molding championship teams and developing the individuals who play the game is beyond compare."
Sue Donohoe, who knew Summitt well in her role as NCAA vice president for Division I women's basketball until she left that position in November, called Summitt "a giver to the game and a giver to people."
"What strikes me is the intensity we've witnessed from Pat through the years and in how she applies that same intensity to all aspects of her life," Donohoe said. "When she tells you she's `in,' she's all in. Those fortunate enough to cross her path come away stronger and better for having known her."
Beth Bass, president and chief executive officer of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, said Summitt is an icon for the game.
"She is an inspiration to everyone who knows her and knows of her," Bass said. "Pat was in the room when the WBCA was founded. She remains an active member and steadfast supporter of the association. All coaches, both veterans and those who are just starting out in the profession, aspire to her success on the court and her reputation as a person of honor and integrity."
Summitt's influence certainly stretched beyond sports this past August when she announced publicly that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. She said she'll remain as Tennessee's head coach indefinitely, but that she will rely more on her assistant coaches in the day-to-day operations.
The immediate groundswell of support after the announcement prompted a "We Back Pat" campaign, with proceeds going to organizations Summitt picked herself, such as Alzheimer's Tennessee and the University of Tennessee Medical Center. Summitt and her son Tyler also announced on Nov. 27 a foundation that will fund grants in support of Alzheimer's programs.
Billie Moore, the former Cal State Fullerton and UCLA coach who coached Summitt on the 1976 Olympic team, told Summitt after her announcement, "You have reached thousands through sports, but you don't have any idea of the magnitude of what you just did - putting a public face on this disease will have far-reaching implications."
"First of all, it is a tremendous honor," said Summitt, who will be recognized during the opening business session on Jan. 12 at the 2012 NCAA Convention in Indianapolis. Her Lady Vols are playing at Kentucky that night, so Summitt will address the Convention attendees in a taped video message. "To receive an award named after one of our presidents ... I am so humbled by it."
"As a coach, you wear so many hats," Summitt said. "First and foremost, I have a responsibility to make sure our players know they are students first and athletes second. They are here to earn a degree and prepare for life after basketball. I love teaching both the game and the life skills accompanying it.
"I have always said that the gym is my classroom. I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish. You feel that, especially every time they come back on campus to visit. I think about the individual journey they took while they were a Lady Vol."
"It was just another example of who she is and what she stands for," Moore said.
Summitt's on-court accomplishments are off the charts. She entered the 2011-12 season as the all-time winningest coach in NCAA basketball history (men or women) and just 29 victories shy of 1,100 career wins. She has won eight championships, and hers is the only program to have earned a bid to every Division I Women's Basketball Championship since the event began in 1982.
She also earns plaudits from players and peers alike for her graduation rates and for developing her students into productive citizens.
"While the program at UT is so strong competitively, it's so much more than just about winning," said Nikki McCray, who played for Summitt from 1991 to 1995 and was recently selected as part of the 2012 class of inductees into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.
"Because of Pat, you learn what it takes to compete at that level, how to be a loyal teammate, how to communicate - all the things you have to do in the real world."
Moore said Summitt's accomplishments - and the integrity with which she has achieved them - remind her of what the legendary UCLA men's coach John Wooden once told her.
"He said, `You know, for my best friend I would wish one or two championships; for an enemy I would wish three or four.' " Moore said, noting how Wooden thought each title put more pressure on the coach to keep producing. "Pat has won eight, so even under all that scrutiny and expectation, she has maintained that level of success.
"And she has consistently done it the right way - and I don't just mean operating within the spirit of the rules, either, but in the expectations she has from her student-athletes. That has never wavered. Those standards have been as important to her at win No. 1 as they are at win No. 1,000."
Judy Rose, now the athletics director at Charlotte, went to graduate school with Summitt at Tennessee in the 1970s. She said Summitt's quest to not only win but to produce winning attitudes in her players has always been important to her. So has her commitment to developing many of her former players into coaches.
"She is a mentor to young men and women who desire to enter the coaching profession and has always been willing to share her knowledge with fellow coaches," Rose said.
Dozens of Summitt's former players have ended up on other teams' sidelines. Among them is Semeka Randall, who along with Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings made up the three "Meeks" on the unbeaten 1998 championship team.
"Who wouldn't want to follow the best?" said the current head coach at Ohio. "She has proven you can win and do so in a respectful way and be an ambassador for the game. So yes, we're all our own people, but I do have a lot of her trademarks."
Summitt attributed her extended coaching tree to the intricacies of the game players learn while they are under her watch.
"Most of them begin to think of the game like a coach would and they approach it from that perspective," she said. "It becomes engrained in them. Before they know it, they become confident in their abilities to teach the game and motivate others. They understand the game when they leave here."
As for the health of women's basketball, Summitt applauded its enormous growth over time.
"I am so excited to see fans crowding our arenas and the level of support our teams receive from some truly great fans," she said. "The popularity of the game can also be measured in the television exposure we now enjoy. We went from just a handful of games on TV to enjoying almost every game being televised."
Her peers are quick to point out Summitt's influence on that growth. North Carolina head coach Sylvia Hatchell, who also went to graduate school with Summitt at Tennessee, said no one has given more back to the game.
"Pat always has shared with others, whether it's letting you watch a practice or whatever she could do - regardless of whether you were her No. 1 competitor," Hatchell said. "If it was going to grow the game and help someone else advance in their career, she would always help."
Moore said while some coaches have success and get bigger than the game, Summitt has always done whatever she can to make the game better for the next generation of players and the next generation of coaches.
"She still does that today," Moore said. "Those are things that make her even more unique than all the wins."
Moore is among those Summitt credits for having shaped her career.
"She had a great influence on me and still does," Summitt said. "I've learned the game from so many people who took the time to share their wisdom with me, from John Wooden to the late Sue Gunter and Kay Yow. There's probably a little of each of them in my make-up as a coach.
At the same time, I have always loved sharing and talking the game with other coaches. That openness and sharing of ideas is what makes the women's basketball coaching fraternity so strong and unique."