By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – I probably should have written this column a lot earlier.
You see, in the today’s world, being one of the first to write an article about a breaking news topic is of critical importance. Often times, we will prepare articles and do research for events that we anticipate might happen, so as to save time if and when that event actually takes place.
Following Tennessee’s loss to Baylor in the NCAA Regional Finals last month, there was widespread speculation in the media that Pat Summitt may have coached the last game of her storied 38-year career.
I was upset by that type of speculation.
Summitt had made it clear that she intended to coach for as long as she possibly could and would not address her coaching future until she deemed necessary. I respected that and believed that she earned that right.
There’s also another factor. I didn’t want to believe that this past season might have been Summitt’s last.
So rarely does a figure in sports have the reach that Summitt does. Save for a few UConn fans, it’s hard to find a person who doesn’t like her, whether they follow the sport of women’s basketball or not.
I don’t get starstruck often nor too attached to most of the coaches and athletes that I cover as part of my job for the SEC Digital Network, but Summitt has always had that impact on me.
I vividly remember the last time I shook hands and spoke with her. It was this past February in Nashville. I had driven up for the evening to attend and cover a speech that Commissioner Mike Slive gave at the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel. As we were walking out of the hotel, Summitt and her team were walking in. They were playing Vanderbilt the next night and were checking in to stay at the hotel. She was as gracious as ever.
This story has never been far from me this year, and if I need a reminder, I can just look down at my Pat Summitt “Fierce Courage” wristband that I wear every day.
There’s probably not a better phrase to characterize Summitt.
Sure, she coached for 38 years, won 1,098 games – more than any coach men’s or women’s in the history of the sport – and she led her team to eight national titles. She also has made a tremendous impact outside of the game of basketball, one that is close to immeasurable.
I shook my head this year at articles that described how Summitt didn’t appear as strong as she once did, how her demeanor was different and her trademark stare didn’t appear as frequently.
With all due respect, they were wrong about her strength. Summitt has never been stronger.
Understandably, with the world we live in, everyone gets caught up in wins and losses. But sometimes we need to look deeper to find the stories of true success.
Can you cite another public figure in a high-profile, stressful job whose every move is tracked and logged on television and in the news media? Oh, and by the way, one who has publicly continued to do their job despite having dementia and Alzheimer’s?
Didn’t think so.
Summitt put a public face on a cruel disease that has long been battled by so many in private.
Think about this for a second – Summitt is the greatest college basketball coach of all time and in many ways the leading figure in all of women’s athletics. She is a giant both in and out of her profession. There is none better. Yet, Summitt knew she would not be the same as she has been. Things would be different – she would have to delegate more responsibility and attempt not to get as worked up at games.
Bottom line, she would not be the same that she once was. Yet, she was willing to accept that and continue working in the most high-profile position in women’s athletics.
That’s true strength and courage.
How many people of Summitt’s stature could continue doing that?
But Summitt saw two things: first, she wanted to continue doing the job she loves, the job that no one has ever been better at than her. Second, she saw the higher calling in doing so – what she could do to help bring awareness to dementia and Alzheimers.
Admittedly, I still find it hard to believe that Summitt won’t be Tennessee’s head coach for the first time in nearly 40 years when the Lady Vols take the court next season.
Fortunately, it will make it a little easier that Summitt will be right there when Tennessee tips it off. She may take a different seat on the bench next season and her role as it comes to traditional coaching tasks will be diminished, but her influence will continue to be all over the program.
But taking a step back, the good news is, in the newly created position of Head Coach Emeritus, Summitt will be able to continue doing the things she loves most about her job. She will come to work every day, but will have more flexibility in her schedule and her duties.
Frankly, Summitt will be able to serve in her new position much, much longer than she could have spent as the program’s head coach.
A few months back, David Wiedmer wrote a column for the Times Free Press entitled “If Only Pat Summitt Could Coach Forever.” Well, no one can coach forever, but the latest announcement has brought stability to both Tennessee and Summitt’s job.
Now the question won’t be “How much longer will Pat Summitt be at Tennessee?” Because the answer is “As long as she likes.”
And that’s a good thing.