By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Stunned.
That adjective was tossed around a lot starting at Noon central time on Tuesday when the news of Pat Summitt’s health condition began to break on Twitter.
The Hall of Fame coach announced Tuesday that she had been diagnosed in May with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. The report was hard to swallow then and it’s still hard to swallow now.
Summitt’s accomplishments are nothing short of amazing. Her 1,071 victories, her eight NCAA Championships and many more honors than you could ever hope to list. She is entering her 38th year at Tennessee and not only has she set the standard in women’s college basketball, for most people she IS women’s college basketball.
There’s something that separates Summitt from most high-profile coaches.
Most of her fan-base feels as if they know her.
She’s always been, simply, “Pat” - to her fellow coaches, to her players and to fans.
And while everything about Tuesday’s video was completely stunning to everyone who watched it, the fact that she was open, honest and forthcoming about her condition was perhaps the only thing that wasn’t a surprise.
“Throughout my career, I have always made it a point that my life and our basketball program were an open book,” Summitt said. “With that in mind, I have something to share with my Tennessee family.”
“Open book” is perhaps the best description that could be given to the Lady Vol program. That is why fans have been able to identify with the program and a major reason for the growth of the sport as a whole. Summitt was one of the first to allow cameras in the locker room to film her pre-game and halftime speeches, and also allowed herself to be mic-ed up from the sidelines to give fans an inside look at the Tennessee program.
Summitt, in conjunction with longtime media chief Debby Jennings, who has been by her side since 1977, have made access to the Tennessee program easy for fans and media members alike. Fans feel like they know Summitt and her program - and many do.
They watch from the comfort of their own homes, but they feel like they are in the huddle.
The public also watched as her son, Tyler, grew up right before their eyes. The story of his birth, like many things about Summitt, is the stuff of legend.
Summitt went into labor while recruiting future-Lady Vol Michelle Marciniak at her home in Macungie, Pa. She calmly completed the recruiting visit and then flew home to Knoxville, urging pilots not to stop so that her son would be born in Tennessee.
Tyler, who now plays on the men’s basketball team at Tennessee, has been on hand for nearly every moment of his mother’s coaching career since his birth. Images of a young Tyler cutting down the net with his mother are fused into the minds of every sports fan.
It was Summitt who made women’s basketball a mainstream sport. Even to fans who don’t follow the sport on a regular basis, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who wasn’t aware of Summitt and her impact on the sports landscape.
Her embrace of a tearful Chamique Holdsclaw, one of the greatest players to ever play the college game, during a regional final loss in 1999, when it became evident that the Lady Vols would not get the chance to play for their fourth consecutive national title, was part of the highlight reel of ESPN’s Plays of the Century.
Her status as an icon in college basketball has made her every move an event covered by any number of national media types. The entire women’s basketball NCAA Tournament is now covered by the ESPN family of networks, something that wasn’t the standard even 10 years ago.
As much of an advocate as I am for increased coverage of women’s athletics, which has improved greatly with the SEC on ESPN package, I would have given anything not to see Summitt as the lead story on ESPN this afternoon. Not for this reason.
In today’s competitive culture that surrounds athletics, it’s hard to identify a figure that is as beloved as Summitt. Usually when a coach is that successful, he or she may be driven by their ego, have alienated their fan bases or may otherwise have tainted their public image. Not Summitt.
Go to any Tennessee women’s basketball game – home or away – and the biggest ovation you may see in the game is the reaction when Summitt first walks onto the floor. It never fails, whether the Lady Vols are playing nearby Carson-Newman in an exhibition game or are playing for the national title, the support for Summitt is always there.
Sure, all of the opposing teams want to beat Tennessee. It comes with the territory of being the winningest program in the history of your sport.
When the program you follow is not a top-25 team, the jubilation of beating the Lady Vols unimaginable. I know that first hand. I was working at Kentucky in 2006 when the Wildcats defeated their first No. 1 team in program history with a three-point win against Tennessee.
But just as it is for most people, the joy is in the win, not in the loss handed to the Lady Vols. It is a sense of respect that has become the measuring stick in the sport. It’s how you know you have a pretty good team – you are able to compete with and, ever so rarely, beat Tennessee. That is the tradition that Summitt has indirectly created, because of the elite-level program she has called home for so long.
Because Tennessee has become so well known and successful, and because Summitt is so well liked, you may want to see your team win, but it doesn’t bring you any great happiness to see the Lady Vols lose.
Think about the dominant programs in each sport: the Yankees, the Lakers, the Cowboys and Manchester United to name a few. Bottom line: they win. The other factor is: all of their opponents have a great dislike for them, mainly because they win. Not the case with Tennessee women’s basketball and Summitt.
I was on hand at the 2008 NCAA Final Four in Tampa, Fla., when the Lady Vols won their most recent national title, and have been seated courtside at the SEC Tournament every year but one since 2005. The Summitt you see behind the scenes isn’t any different than the once you watch on television: genuine, driven and inspiring.
One of the greatest tragedies of all of this is that this terrible ailment that Summitt is afflicted with will affect, most of all, her mind.
You could make the case that she is the greatest basketball mind of all time. You wouldn’t find many people willing to disagree with you either.
Perhaps her most defining quality, said assistant coach Mickie DeMoss, is Summitt’s resolve. DeMoss told the Washington Post today “Pat has more resolve than anyone I’ve ever known. She has a deep inner strength.”
That’s why the news that Summitt planned to continue to coach the Lady Vols was no surprise when she announced it on Tuesday.
“I plan to continue to be your coach,” Summitt said in her statement to fans. “For that reason, I will be relying on my outstanding coaching staff like never before. We’ve always collaborated on every facet of Lady Vol basketball. And now, you will see Holly Warlick, Mickie DeMoss and Dean Lockwood take on more responsibility as their duties are changing significantly.”
Summitt’s staff has 89 years of combined experience coaching college basketball. They have always been greatly valued; they will now be counted upon like never before.
In discussing Summitt’s staff, another characteristic that can’t be overlooked is loyalty. It runs through the head coach’s every vein. She has never coached anywhere other than Tennessee. She became the coach of the Lady Vols right out of college at age 22.
That loyalty is reflected in her staff. Jennings is her longest-serving member, as the first and only media relations director for the Lady Vols starting in 1977. Secretary Katie Wynn is now beginning her 31st year with the program. The team’s associate head coach Holly Warlick played for Tennessee from 1976-1980 and has been coaching at Tennessee since 1985. A 2001 Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, Warlick was the first player in UT athletics history to have her jersey retired at the end of her career.
Summitt has always been the caretaker of her staff, her friends and her family. Now it is their turn to support her through the most difficult time in her life.
And there will be no lack of support. By Tuesday afternoon #patsummitt was trending nationally on Twitter. That’s how widespread the support is for the sport of women's basketball’s most popular coach.
Summitt has meant so much to the game of basketball, to women’s athletics in general and even more to her family, friends and fan base. Working with this as a news story for the entire afternoon, I have read most of the articles and have come across all the facts that are out there.
And yet, after reading countless words on this remarkable coach, I still have only one word for my reaction.