By Amanda Lowrance
After 38 seasons and the most recorded victories in any NCAA sport, Pat Summitt stepped aside last Wednesday and handed the head coaching position of the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteer Basketball Team to her friend and longtime assistant Holly Warlick. Summitt has chosen to continue her role with the team and in her daily life routines, just not as head coach.
Her soon-to-be Tennessee graduate son, Tyler was hired as an assistant coach for the Marquette University women’s team the same day Summitt announced her retirement.
She is an eight time Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year and led the Lady Vols to 16 SEC Tournament Championships. In the NCAA, Summitt is a seven-time Coach of the Year with eight NCAA Division Championships and was awarded the Naismith Coach of the 20th Century. She’s also been named Tennessean of the Year by the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame an unprecedented two times.
The day after her announcement and public acceptance of Alzheimer’s disease, President Barack Obama announced the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom was being awarded to Summitt.
As a starving high school basketball player, Summitt and her family had to move in order to play because often girls’ basketball teams did not exist. In college, she attended UT Martin where she played for the first women’s basketball coach but still had to pay tuition due to the absence of Title IX, omitting athletic scholarships for women.
At 22 years old, Summitt became head coach of the unsanctioned, future National Collegiate Athletic Association Lady Vols team. Four of her players were only a year younger than she was during her first year as head coach.
Starting at the bottom, holding her head high and working her way up, Summitt washed players’ uniforms, drove the bus, and raised money for team expenses. It wasn’t until the 1981-82 season that Tennessee played in the first NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship Tournament, and even then the Lady Vols advanced to the National Semifinals.
The SEC has more than considered naming the championship trophy after the unparalleled coach, but the NCAA has strict rules and will most likely lose the chance if not acted on soon.
But who could ever match what she has done for women’s basketball? Who will be able to walk in her shoes and experience those historical obstacles?
The courageous, knowledgeable coach led UT to nearly 1,100 wins, eight national championships, and has inspired generations of women.
The worst of her symptoms in early onset dementia include disorientation while waking up on the road in strange, dark hotel rooms, strain in drawing diagram plays, retention of numbers, and her quick response and ferocity has deteriorated.
Just as many others have taken the news, Summitt has been affected more by the diagnosis than the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. People have treated her differently since the diagnosis by acting as if she is sick, no longer valuable, or by talking around her instead of to her.
She has created a whole new era of women’s basketball and still wants to continue to be a part of what she has created until it is no longer possible. That is true dedication and without this spark, where would women’s basketball be today?