Dinner with a Legend

June 10, 2012 at 8:58 pm (inspiration, Personal, sports, ut) (, , , , )

Pat Summitt and CC jpg

I hope I will never forget one of the greatest moments of my life: I had dinner with Coach Pat Summitt. It means even more to me now, since her battle with Alzheimer’s Disease has forced her to step down from her head coaching position at the University of Tennessee, where she is now Head Coach Emeritus. President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom last month, the highest civilian honor one can receive. 

But back to our dinner.  It was a fund raiser of some sort, the details are lost to me now. But I went with my father, who is a UT graduate, and has always been active in university affairs and a member of various boards. So, we arrived a little early to the event, and I was looking around to see where Coach Summitt was going to be sitting. I remember telling Daddy that I hoped she was close enough that I could see her. He just smiled a little and said he thought I’d be able to see her just fine. 

Just as I was making my way to the table, I heard a familiar voice call out from behind me.  “Hey, Leonard, how are you?” Daddy turned and said, “Well, hello Pat. It’s good to see you again.”  I’m not usually one to get star-struck, but I absolutely could not find any words as I found myself face to face with Pat Summitt–well, not quite face to face–she is quite tall.  But still. I just stood there while Daddy made introductions. She shook my hand, warmly and firmly. She asked me a few general questions as we walked toward the table. She stopped at a seat, smiled at me,  and said, “Well, it looks like we’ll be having dinner together tonight”.  I looked at Daddy, who was sporting a mile-wide grin.  He said, “Oh, did I forget to mention that to you?”  I nearly fainted.  I giggled, then hugged him, then hugged her. She was laughing, too, and told me to “just relax. I put my pants on one leg at a time, just like you do”. 

I did begin to relax and the next couple of hours flew by in a blur. We chatted like old friends as we ate. We taIked a little about basketball, but mostly about other things: our shared love for our four-legged friends and driving fast, fond memories of the peace and quiet of farm life and country cooking, a well-played game, and a well-played prank (the sense of humor came thru). I could not possibly come up with enough adequate adjectives to describe her over the course of that two hours.  She was at times the most engaging, generous, funny, warm, witty, intelligent, kind, successful, determined, courageous, self-deprecating, humble, and considerate woman I have ever met. She left a lasting impression on me that night, the night Pat came to dinner. 

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Summitt notches first ace

June 9, 2012 at 8:18 pm (inspiration, sports, ut) (, , )

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It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Coach Pat Summitt. I was a fan before she became a legend, before she became basketball’s winningest coach, before she was forced to retire after 38 spectacular seasons at the University of Tennessee after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.  She holds dozens of records and has done just about everything imaginable in sports…except carding a hole-in-one. Until yesterday. Now she can add that to her list as well.  

Pat admits she has been practicing her golf game now that she has a little extra free time since retiring from UT. She was playing in an impressive foursome which included Lisa Reagan (a former player), Billie Moore (who coached Summitt at the 1976 Montreal Olympics), and Debbie Antonelli (ESPN sports analyst). The ladies had gotten together on the eve of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony and were playing at a course just outside of Knoxville. 

The day had apparently been relatively uneventful until they got to the 17th hole par 3.  Summitt hit a blind tee shot (meaning she couldn’t see the hole from where she hit her shot). When the foursome got to the green, they couldn’t find Summitt’s ball. They were looking behind the hole, thinking it had rolled past the cup, when Antonelli happened to look into the cup and said, “You’re never going to believe this”. Summitt said she knew she’d hit the ball pretty good, using a 7-iron for the 112 yard shot, but had no idea it was that good.

It’s just another milestone for Pat Summitt. I wouldn’t write her off just yet. 

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Pat Summitt Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

May 29, 2012 at 9:48 pm (inspiration, sports, ut) (, , , )

Pat Summitt PresMedalofHonor

Pat Summitt received the Presidential Medal of Freedom earlier today in a ceremony at the White House.  President Obama presented Summitt with the award, which is the nation’s highest civilian honor.  According to a news release by the White House, the award is given to honor those who have made especially notable contributions in their field to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.

When she was first announced to be a recipient of the prestigious award, President Obama said, “Coach Summitt is an inspiration – both as the all-time winningest NCAA coach, and as someone who is willing to speak so openly and courageously about her battle with Alzheimer’s. Pat’s gift has always been her ability to push those around her to new heights, and over the last 38 years, her unique approach has resulted in both unparalleled success on the court and unrivaled loyalty from those who know her and those whose lives she has touched. Pat’s coaching career may be over, but I’m confident that her work is far from finished. I look forward to awarding her this honor.”

During her illustrious career, Coach Summitt has become the all-time winningest NCAA coach, male or female. She has racked up more awards than can be counted, including Naismith Women’s Collegiate Coach of the Century. The court at Thompson-Boling Arena is named ‘The Summitt’ in her honor.  She played on the silver medal team in the 1976 U.S. Olympics, then coached the U.S. to a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics.  After 37 seasons coaching, all at Tennessee, her record was 1071-199 (84.3). She had 18 Final Four appearances and won 8 National Championships. She was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. 

Although her coaching career has officially ended, and the wins and losses won’t be tallied any longer, Summitt will continue to make a difference.  She will still be the spokesperson in the fight against Alzheimer’s through her own Pat Summitt Foundation and she will still mentor the student-athletes whom she so loves.  

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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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Summitt battling Alzheimer’s, Will Continue to Coach

August 25, 2011 at 8:51 pm (inspiration, sports, ut) (, , , )

University of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summitt announced in text and video statements Tuesday that she has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Coach Summitt was diagnosed to be in the early stages of the disease after undergoing a battery of tests at the Mayo Clinic over the summer. She informed the current squad during a team meeting on Tuesday.  Recording the video with her yellow lab, Sadie, sleeping on the sofa with her head in Summitt’s lap, she said she plans to continue coaching “for as long as the good Lord is willing” although noted that there will be more delegation of responsibilities to her three assistant coaches. She said, “Obviously, I realize I may have some limitations with this condition since there will be some good days and some bad days”.

Although most everyone was shocked to hear of the diagnosis, few were surprised that Summitt chose to battle it in such a manner. She has always met every challenge head on and this is no different.  She says her son, Tyler, a senior at UT, urged her to speak out about her diagnosis.  She plans to use medication and mental exercises to help manage the disease.  It can only be beneficial for the Alzheimer’s Association to help spread the word about Alzheimer’s diagnosis, treatment, and research. Dementia is considered to be a group of symptoms that interferes with daily functioning by affecting social and intellectual abilities. It is progressive and there is no known cure.

Summitt is college basketball’s winningest head coach. She has spent 37 years at Tennessee, having first taken the job as a graduate student in 1974. At that time, she made $250 per month, drove the team van, held bake sales to raise money for new uniforms, and washed the uniforms herself. She is an icon for all women’s sports, not just basketball. She was instrumental in legitimizing women’s sports when Title IX was passed. This legislation forced schools to finally allocate money for women’s sports that they would have never done otherwise. Title IX, by definition, prevented women from being excluded from any education program or activity. She was one of the early promoters of women’s sports and no one has done more for women, particularly women’s basketball, than she has.

Abc pat summitt nt 110824 wgBarely older than her players, she was still playing herself when she first started coaching at UT. She was on the U.S. Women’s Basketball team, and had torn her ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) just months before the Olympics. With her characteristic determination, she rehabbed herself while continuing to teach, work on her Master’s degree, and coach the Lady Vols. She helped her U.S.  team win a silver medal at the 1976 Olympics.  It is that kind of toughness that she expects from her players and that kind of toughness that will help her in her current challenge with Alzheimer’s. 

Spending much time in East Tennessee during my formative years, I was first exposed to Coach Pat Head Summitt when I was just a little tyke.  I don’t remember how old I was when I saw my first Lady Vols game, but I do know that it was not in the huge 21,000 seat Thompson-Boling Arena where the games are now played. There were not a lot of people at the first games I attended, but they were faithful, and I was instantly a fan, both of the Lady Vols and of Coach Summitt.  I desperately wanted to play for her, but sadly I lacked both the ability and the knees to do so. But I could watch and support the team. So I did.  I watched, and supported and something happened.  Under her guidance, the team grew into a powerhouse.  The Tennessee Lady Vols are women’s basketball. They may have had record-setting seasons and won multiple games at the local, regional, and national level.  But the real success, according to Coach Summitt, is in the classroom. 100% of her players who finish their career at Tennessee have graduated. That is a very impressive statistic.

I don’t know how long we will see Coach Summitt at the helm of her team, but I’ll be watching and supporting, just as I always have. This is one battle that I, for one, hope she wins.

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