Pat Summitt remains the ultimate winner even though her Lady Vols were eliminated by Baylor

If you ever met Pat Summitt, even for a moment, you know.

If she ever spoke a single word to you, it’s understood.

If you met her steely glance at any point in her unparalleled career, you get it.

Although it is immensely sad that Summitt, 59, may not coach another basketball game, it is as crystal clear as her icy blue stare that she does not need to walk onto a basketball court to continue as a coach for the rest of her life and beyond.

Because once Pat Summitt coaches you, you stay coached. Once you feel her intensity, her commitment and her passion, no chalk talk is necessary.

Pat Summitt has yet to say if she'll return for a 39th season as Tennessee's coach.
(AP)

Her mental sharpness may be waning, as a result of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s Type, but her spark continues to catch fire in players, alumni, friends, foes, even viewers on TV.

Her Tennessee Lady Vols were eliminated from this season’s NCAA tournament Monday night, soundly defeated in the Des Moines Regional final by top-seeded Baylor, which features one of the greatest women’s players ever in Brittney Griner. But Summitt’s team got into a skirmish with less than a minute to go. That aggression – that insistence on battling to the last – is vintage Summitt. She has lived that battle since she was a 22-year-old first-year coach, washing her players’ jerseys and driving the team van to games long before women’s basketball even was sanctioned by the NCAA. And her players will live that battle next season whether she’s on the sideline or not.

Her teams always have been ready, spirited and, above all, unafraid. Those are traits that remain after games, seasons, graduations, careers and families. Those are traits that stick.

Yes, the staggering on-court achievement should be mentioned. If Summitt retires – and there is no official word on that as of Monday night – she will finish with a mind-boggling 1,098-208 record. She never lost more than 11 games in a season, and her team won at least 22 games in each of the last 36 seasons.

The decision to retire or return is solely hers and her family’s to make. Tennessee has made it clear she would be welcome back next season.

This group of seniors is the first to go four years and not reach the Final Four. But this team won three NCAA tournament games, giving their coach 112 in her career. No other woman’s program has even played 100 NCAA tournament games.

Still, Summitt’s off-court achievements are even more impressive: Every player who has completed her eligibility either has earned a degree or is on schedule to earn a degree. Think about that.

Over the course of more than 30 years, the seediest of elements have crept into college sports – yes, even women’s sports. The lure of a pro career has grown. Female college athletes have gone from ignored and dismissed to seen on television and, in some cases, becoming truly famous. Trouble in today’s world is only a touch screen away. And Summitt’s players have toed the line. They have upheld their mentor’s standard. They have gone on to successful careers – including 45 former players in coaching. In a sport where showing off is prevalent and hustle is getting rare, the Lady Vols have remained true. They have stayed coached.

So if you have seen that Summitt stare, whether in person or on TV, you get it. Her white-hot flame might be dwindling, but the spark has caught. It burns through hundreds of former players, and their players, and one day, it will burn through their players’ players, too.

It’s an incredible number: 1,098 wins.

And if you’ve met her, or a single one of her players, you know this: Pat Summitt may not coach anymore, but she will continue to win.

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Award-winning writer Eric Adelson is a feature writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Eric a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Mar 26, 2012