By The Associated Press
The time Tennessee Lady Vols and women’s basketball fans have dreaded for months finally has arrived.
Pat Summitt is stepping aside as Tennessee’s head coach after 38 seasons, the last an emotionally draining farewell tour for the woman who won more games than anyone else in NCAA college basketball history.
“I’ve loved being the head coach at Tennessee for 38 years, but I recognize that the time has come to move into the future and to step into a new role,” the 59-year-old Hall of Famer said in a statement issued Wednesday by the school.
Summitt will discuss the move, including the promotion of longtime assistant Holly Warlick as her replacement, at a Thursday news conference on the court named in her honor the night she won her 1,000th game. Making the decision had been only a matter of time since Summitt revealed Aug. 23 that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.
It’s why players from opposing teams joined fans from coast to coast donning T-shirts saying “We back Pat” and greeted Summitt with cheers at every game. Even the Murray State men put shirts with the phrase on when they played at Summitt’s alma mater in Martin this winter on another court named in her honor.
But Summitt’s every move was studied to see how she felt, down to how many officials she yelled at or her icy glares at a player. After losing to eventual national champ Baylor in a regional final, Warlick’s tears during the postgame news conference gave a glimpse of how exhausting the season had been and the possibility it was Summitt’s last game.
Mickie DeMoss, who served as Summitt’s assistant for 21 years combined before leaving for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever earlier this month, said she’s happy for Summitt.
“Her health and well-being are most important to me,” DeMoss said. “She now can focus on doing things for Pat. She has given 38 years to UT and to women’s basketball. Now, she can do what’s best for herself, every day. I’m happy for my friend, and happy that she can begin a new chapter in her life.”
Summitt will report to athletic director Dave Hart in her new role, while assisting the program she guided to eight national titles since taking over in 1974.
“She is an icon who does not view herself in that light, and her legacy is well-defined and everlasting,” Hart said. “Just like there will never be another John Wooden, there will never be another Pat Summitt. I look forward to continuing to work with her in her new role. She is an inspiration to everyone.”
Her responsibilities will include helping with recruiting, watching practice, joining staff meetings, helping coaches analyze practice and games, and advising the Southeastern Conference on women’s basketball issues and mentoring players. Summitt also will be working as a spokeswoman in the fight against Alzheimer’s.
“If anyone asks, you can find me observing practice or in my office,” Summitt said. “Coaching is the great passion of my life, and the job to me has always been an opportunity to work with our student-athletes and help them discover what they want. I will continue to make them my passion. I love our players and my fellow coaches, and that’s not going to change.”
UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Summitt’s vision for women’s basketball and her relentless drive pushed the game to a new level, making it possible for the rest to accomplish what they have.
“In her new role, I’m sure she will continue to make significant impacts to the University of Tennessee and to the game of women’s basketball as a whole,” Auriemma said.
“I am thrilled for (Warlick) as this opportunity is well deserved and Pat will be a huge asset to her moving forward,” he said.
Warlick, a three-time All-American who played for Summitt, was her assistant for 27 years.
Hart said he watched Warlick grow this season under what he called “unique circumstances” and that she is deserving of the head job. While Summitt devoted more attention to her health, Warlick took the lead during games and handled postgame interviews, with the entire staff handling recruiting and practices.
“Her mentor will be available for insight and advice, but this is Holly’s team now,” Hart said.
Warlick said she was thankful for all Summitt has done in preparing her for this opportunity as her coach, mentor and friend.
“We will work as hard as we possibly can with the goal of hanging more banners in Thompson-Boling Arena,” Warlick said.
Tamika Catchings, one of Summitt’s former stars and the WNBA’s reigning MVP, saw the news on TV during a meeting.
“Everyone in the back of their minds was thinking this was going to happen anyway. Holly will do a good job,” Catchings said.
Summitt’s diagnosis came during one of the Lady Vols’ most disappointing stretches – by their coach’s lofty standards, anyway. Tennessee hasn’t won a national championship since 2008 and hasn’t even reached the Final Four, tying for its longest such drought in program history.
“As I’ve said many times, Pat Summitt is a pioneer in basketball,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Her amazing career accomplishments are among an elite group of leaders. Very few people leave a lasting legacy in their chosen professions and Coach Summitt has done just that at the University of Tennessee and in women’s basketball. She raised the level of commitment, pride and notoriety of her sport. I am honored to call her a friend.”
Tennessee’s five seniors were part of the team that lost in the first round of the 2009 NCAA tournament, the only time in school history the Lady Vols had bowed out on the first weekend.
Those seniors promised they would win a ninth national championship this season – not just for Summitt, but as center Vicki Baugh put it, ” … for everyone who has Alzheimer’s.”
But they couldn’t make it back to the Final Four, losing to Baylor and Brittney Griner, a player Summitt couldn’t convince to come to Knoxville.
Summitt’s career ends with a 1,098-208 record, 16 regular-season Southeastern Conference championships and 16 SEC tournament titles.
During her time, Tennessee never failed to reach the NCAA tournament, never received a seed lower than No. 5 and reached 18 Final Fours.
“Words cannot adequately describe the extraordinary career that Pat Summitt has had in the world of basketball,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “She is a model of class and courage, and I don’t think that enough can be said for just how much Pat has accomplished in building and elevating women’s basketball to its current heights.”
Every Lady Vol player who has completed her eligibility at Tennessee graduated under Summitt, and 74 former players, assistants, graduate assistants, team managers and directors of basketball operations are currently among the coaching ranks at every level of basketball.
“You think about the University of Tennessee and you think of Pat Summitt,” Catchings said. “You don’t think of anyone else. The great players that have come and gone, coaches that have come and gone, but the legacy that she built for herself and for the university. It’s amazing how far women’s basketball has come. Her legacy isn’t over yet.”