Pat Summitt stepping aside as Tennessee coach could lead to her raising awareness of Alzheimer's
Pat Summitt was 22 years old when she first coached the University of Tennessee women's basketball team. It was Dec. 7, 1974 (Tennessee lost to Mercer 84-83). She was the daughter of a dairy farmer and rehabbing a knee injury in hopes of making the Montreal Olympics.
No one else really wanted the job. Coaching the Lady Volunteers was essentially a volunteer position.
One thousand ninety-eight victories, eight NCAA championships, two Olympics (silver as a player on that fixed-up knee, gold in 1984 as coach) and a singular impact on modern athletics later, Pat Summitt announced her retirement Wednesday.
This is a bittersweet day, of course. Summitt is just 59, seemingly with so many more years to give to teaching and inspiring players on her team and afar.
Eight months ago, however, Summitt went public with her diagnosis of early-onset dementia. She coached UT to a 27-9 season but will now assume the title of "head coach emeritus." While she'll still be involved in the program, former player and longtime assistant Holly Warlick is the new head coach.
"I've loved being the head coach at Tennessee for 38 years, but I recognize that the time has come to move into the future and to step into a new role," Summitt said in a statement. A press conference is scheduled for Thursday.
The Wizard of Knoxville they called her, and if there was ever someone John Wooden may have needed to look up to, it's Summitt. And like Wooden, it's likely Summitt will continue to lead and instruct long after she is no longer pacing a sideline.
[ Photos: Tennessee coaching legend Pat Summitt through the years | More on Vols]
Summitt's greatest impact was helping redefine the way women could compete and be coached. She came of age in an era when women were to be protected – there was still 6-on-6 basketball, where players only ran half the court, because some thought girls couldn't handle any additional exertion. Summitt scoffed at that and coached the game like Henry Iba or Bob Knight would've, no excuses, no limits, no apologies. She leaned on those lessons her father, Richard, taught her growing up on that family farm near Clarksville, Tenn.
Hard work was non-negotiable.
"The cows didn't take a day off," she joked a few years back in an interview. "For me, it was the only way I knew how to approach coaching. I think we surprised some people. I think they like our intensity.
"I'm sure there were some good old boys who thought, 'I'm not going to watch women's basketball.' But when they saw it, they saw something they didn't expect. I'm glad that's changed."
What was once a hidden pursuit is now big business. High school. College. Even a pro league.
What Summitt found with her no-nonsense, why-not-us? style was a legion of young women craving just that kind of attitude. They flocked to Knoxville and built powerhouse teams.
She couldn't take them all, but that was the beauty of it. There she was, this mountain of a figure on the rim of the Smokies, coaching and challenging in a way few had ever seen.
The sport flipped on a dime. Maybe all of women's athletics. Suddenly, talented and tenacious athletes stopped having to apologize for wanting to compete. Like a splashed pebble rippling endlessly outward, her impact kept extending, beyond basketball and into every other pursuit.
Summitt is tall and graceful with high cheekbones, and she had a flair for flamboyant outfits on the sideline that called attention to her style, not just her famed stare that could melt a mistake-prone point guard.
[Related: Pat Summitt's son, Tyler, opens up about his mom's Alzheimer's diagnosis]
She was tough. And smart. And fashionable. A wife, a mother, a role model. She was seemingly capable of doing it all.
Men admired her. If there had ever been a woman that could've succeeded in men's college basketball, she was it. If the nature of recruiting was different, she was tough and sharp enough to lead.
That she didn't have to may have been her greatest victory. What more of a career could she have dreamed? What bigger of a life?
Fame. Fortune. Respect. Satisfaction. At its highest level, women's basketball was elevated to something close to the men. And who could've imagined that in 1975? She was so young and the team so informal then her players called her "Pat."
They still do.
Summitt says she isn't stopping now and there is no reason not to believe it.
"If anyone asks, you can find me observing practice or in my office," she said. "Coaching is the great passion of my life, and the job to me has always been an opportunity to work with our student-athletes and help them discover what they want. I will continue to make them my passion."
There's more though, and this is where a second stage of Summitt's life could mean so much. She's already established the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund for the fight against Alzheimer's disease.
She plans on remaining "active" in that cause, and just like 38 years ago, her ability to raise funds, awareness and commitments from private and public sources could continue her run as an impossible-to-ignore force of nature.
If there was ever a disease that needs a powerful, poignant face, it's that one.
Everyone knew this day was coming when her illness was revealed. The 2011-12 season was a curtain call. She had begun to forget offensive sets and struggled with the incredible demands of her job and life.
True to form, she made her announcement and promised, "There's not going to be any pity party. And I'll make sure of that."
There wasn't, just a run to the Elite Eight that ended at the hands of eventual national champion Baylor, a team of incredible talent (6-foot-8 Brittney Griner) and focus (the first 40-0 team in NCAA history.)
[Rewind: ND coach says Baylor's Brittney Griner is 'like a guy playing with women']
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey has long considered Summitt an icon and a mentor. She was 12 when Summitt began coaching. Mulkey recognized that this woman was the trailblazer that changed the culture so someone like Griner could one day feel empowered by her physical gifts and someone like Mulkey could be comfortable in demanding so much from her team.
No, the battle isn't fully won. No, there isn't complete acceptance. But it's come so far. It's come, really, so, so fast.
When Baylor won the NCAA tournament game against Tennessee and Mulkey knew she had likely ended Summitt's career, this one-of-a-kind, too-big-to-have-dreamed-come-true career, she could only be humbled.
"What do you say after the game?" Mulkey said that night.
"You say, 'I love you.' "
And thank you.
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