“Summitt earned the right to handle this on her own terms. She isn’t bigger than the program. She is the program.”
— David Climer, the Tennessean
Just weeks before the sports world celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the passage of Title IX, one of the true icons of both women’s sports and the sports world in general, Pat Summitt, is retiring as basketball coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols. It’s hard to imagine someone in our polarized society who has earned everyone’s respect as fully as Pat Summitt. She built a women’s sport in a red state and left all observers from every political stripe in awe of her intensity, her work ethic and her hawk-eyed smarts. As she once said, “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.”
Late, great UCLA coach John Wooden once called Summitt the best coach in the sport, and the numbers back it up. This is someone who won more college basketball games than Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (1,098) and more national championships than Coach K and Dean Smith combined (8). She is also still just 59 years old, but made the decision to say goodbye. It had to be done. Coach Summitt announced last year that she was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s. This season saw Coach Summitt occasionally drift and stare into the deep distance during practices, or clutch the edge of a table or clipboard to keep her hands steady. But still, even with Alzheimer’s, she led the Lady Vols to a 27-9 record, only losing in the Elite 8 to a Baylor team that was on its way to finishing 40-0.
It was time to step down, deal with her health, raise money for her foundation aimed at battling this evil, merciless disease, and after thirty-eight years, hand the clipboard to someone else.
As Ann Killion wrote for Sports Illustrated, “It’s been heart-wrenching to witness, even from afar. I can only imagine the pain suffered by those closest to Summitt—her assistants, her players, her son, Tyler. We saw a glimpse of it last month, on the night that Tennessee’s season ended—a night that many suspected would be the last for Summitt—when [assistant coach Holly] Warlick broke down in tears in the postgame interview. Her pain was so sharp, it took my breath away.”
It did for so many, as former and current players spent much of last season grieving with their coach. That’s the awful truth about Alzheimer’s. The person afflicted will be with us for some time, but you still need to hurry and say goodbye. Despite the emotional strain and endless well-wishers, Coach Summitt kept pushing forward until season’s end.