Where do we even begin with Pat Summitt?
After 38 seasons coaching women's basketball at the University of Tennessee, the coaching icon has stepped aside, accepting the title of "head coach emeritus" while longtime Lady Vols assistant coach Holly Warlick will take the reins. At best, the news that the 59-year-old Summitt is giving up the grind of college basketball is bittersweet. At worst, it feels like a mistake just made the wide world of sports a bit smaller than it was when the magnetic matriarch of the Lady Vols was holding court at an arena near you. The mixed emotions surrounding the news -- and the lack of surprise, given her age -- can be traced back to August 2011 when Summitt revealed that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia.
"She's ready to fight this and move on," Tennessee athletic Joan Cronan said at the time of the initial announcement of Summitt's condition. "She had to come to grips with how she wanted to face it."
After completing her 38th season, Summitt has chosen not to face her condition from the sideline of a basketball court any longer, leaving everyone scrambling to address her departure. But how can we, in brief, convey the totality of Summitt's landmark career and expansive significance in her native Tennessee and beyond?
Do Summitt's 1,098 career wins (more than any other coach) sum her up? Do the 16 regular-season Southeastern Conference championships do the job? Could it be the 16 SEC tournament titles? The 18 Final Fours? The unprecedented eight national championships? The Olympic gold medal she won as as the coach of the USA women's basketball team in 1984? Or, maybe, it's the gold medal she won as a player at the 1976 Summer Olympics, fittingly the first time women's basketball was a medal sport.
"How do you briefly introduce someone with those credentials? With her credentials she stands in a class alone. Yet for me it is not the gold medal, it is not the championships, it is not the number of wins that separates her from her peers. It is the way that she has conducted herself, that is the most impressing aspect. I had a chance to coach her and learn firsthand her commitment to hard work, to making her teammates better, and for her passion for the game of basketball. These same characteristics are as apparent as I've had the opportunity to watch her develop her coaching style. The coaching profession has forever changed and the bar raised to a higher standard because of Pat's willingness to share and give her time to other coaches. If you ask Pat about her success, she would say she has been blessed. yet we are the ones blessed because she chose to share her talents with all of us in the basketball family."
Having recruited and coached and competed for so many years during her career, Summitt welcomed innumerable people to that hoops family that Moore spoke about. According to David Whitley of The Sporting News, 74 players and assistant coaches at Tennessee have gone on to coach elsewhere. Summitt's own son, Tyler, was just hired as an assistant coach on the Marquette women's team.
With her life so inextricably tied to her work, it can be hard to distinguish her from her historic accomplishments. Although it has been recorded over many years and with relatively little fanfare compared to some of the very conspicuous accomplishments that have earned Summitt comparisons to iconic UCLA coach John Wooden, there may just be one statistic that gets to the heart -- and head -- of the Summitt era at Tennessee.
Summitt steps aside with 100% graduation rate for players who completed their eligibility at the University of Tennessee, despite the fact that basketball has the lowest graduation rates of collegiate women's sports.
Some of those former players were among the many people who expressed their reactions on Twitter to the news that Summitt was stepping down: