Summitt Steps Down; End of an Era

April 19, 2012 at 4:25 pm (inspiration, sports, ut) (, , , , , )

It happened a lot earlier than I’d hoped.  Eight months ago, Pat Summitt announced she was playing her toughest opponent yet. This time, even though the whole team would be behind her, the game would be one-on-one. Coach Summitt had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, a progressive neurological disorder that gradually robs its victims of their memories. 

Coach Summitt met this opponent just as she had met every other challenge over her 59 years: head-on. She made the courageous decision to go public with her diagnosis with her son, Tyler, at her side every step of the way. She would continue coaching “as long as the good Lord is willing”, she said in her announcement. Those of us, like myself, who count ourselves her biggest fans, along with her family and friends, were hopeful that she would be able to continue coaching for at least a few more years.

Pat Summitt passes whistle to Holly Warlick 1

But as the season wore on, it became more and more obvious.  Things were changing, and not in a way I liked.  The once fiery Coach Pat Summitt sat on the sideline, sometimes with a vacant look in her eyes, while Assistant Coach Holly Warlick worked the sidelines and the referees, yelling instructions and calling plays.  Those same assistant coaches took on even more responsibility, particularly Holly Warlick, who, in addition to being the sideline coach, was now also handling the media duties that Pat so enjoyed.  

Seeing all this, we began to see the season for what it was: a farewell tour.  Everywhere they played, there were prolonged standing ovations for Coach Summitt.  The first couple of times I saw it on television, it was almost funny.  I thought, “you do realize she is the opposing coach, right?”.  But then, it hit me.  I realized that this was most likely the last time these folks would ever see her coach. It was amazing how supportive everyone was, even the opposing players. ‘Gracious’ was the first word that came to mind. I think most of these coaches and players realized that they wouldn’t be where they are today, playing and coaching the game they love, had Pat Head Summitt not paved the way nearly four decades ago by being dedicated, stubborn, and courageous. But, she was all those things and still the unfailingly polite country girl who treated everyone with respect.  

Coach Summitt passed her whistle to new head coach Holly Warlick at a press conference this afternoon.  Warlick, a Knoxville native who played under Summit at UT and was the first player to have her jersey retired at the end of her career, has been an assistant coach under Summitt for the past 27 years.  Because of Warlick’s experience, she was the logical successor to Summitt, and will likely provide the smoothest transition imaginable for the program. 

Summitt is the Head Coach Emeritus now. While her title has changed, her day to day activities likely will not, primarily because it is essential that she stick to a relatively normal routine. She will still attend practices, help with recruiting, and continue to mold the lives of young student athletes for as long as she possibly can.  I, for one, hope that is for several more years.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   


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