Pat Summitt was relaxed, smiling and even cracking jokes – looking and sounding totally at peace knowing she will never coach her beloved Tennessee Lady Vols again.
The Hall of Fame coach who eight months ago revealed she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, has turned the program over to longtime assistant Holly Warlick.
“It was really a great ride for me,” Summitt said Thursday, speaking on the Tennessee basketball court named after her before a crowd of about 200 fans, faculty and friends.
“I just felt like it was time for me to step down knowing that Holly was going to be in great hands,” Summitt said. “She’s a great coach and you know I’m going to continue to support her. You know It’s never a good time, but you have to find the time that you think is the right time and that is now.”
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She will become Tennessee’s new “head coach emeritus” with the school paying her the $1 million bonus she had been due once she coached her 40th season.
There were season-long questions about Summitt’s health, but the mood at the press conference was upbeat. Summitt, who turns 60 in June, joked how coming to work every day in her new role and staying around students may help keep her young.
“I’m getting ready to turn the big one … yeah, 30,” Summitt said, after which someone from the crowd chimed in. “Hardly!”
Summitt won more games than anyone else in NCAA college basketball during her 38 years at Tennessee.
And while the ride on the coaching carousel may be over for her, there are more challenges and honors ahead.
The White House says later this year Summitt will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
President Barack Obama said Summitt is an “inspiration” as the coach who has won more games than anyone else in NCAA college basketball history and for her willingness to “speak so openly and courageously about her battle with Alzheimer’s.”
“Obviously, I didn’t see it coming, but that’s a tremendous honor,” Summitt said of the Medal of Freedom honor.
In her new role at Tennessee, Summitt will report to athletic director Dave Hart.
“I made a choice early in my career to challenge myself to step up my game each and every day,” Summitt said. “You can be sure I will take this same attitude into my new role as head coach emeritus and continue to teach our players the same commitment. I can promise you ladies I’m here for you. Trust me that that will happen.”
She capped her opening remarks by calling Warlick, her former player and assistant the past 27 years, over and handing over her whistle. Summitt said it was time, as she hugged Warlick with the crowd giving them a standing ovation.
“I know this works because I’ve heard it a lot of times,” Warlick said, referring to the whistle.
Warlick isn’t the only coach on the move. Tyler Summitt, Pat’s son, will be an assistant women’s coach at Marquette.
“This was her decision, and I think that she took time after the season, thought about everything and the thing my mom’s always taught me is to put the team before yourself,” Tyler Summitt said. “She really felt like this was the best thing for the Lady Vol program. She’s still going to be in a mentoring role.”
Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley, men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin along with members of the Lady Vols basketball team were among those in the crowd.
Summitt tried to show people during the season that it was possible to function even in the face of dementia and Alzheimer’s. She had the blessing of Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy Cheek to keep coaching.
She delegated duties to Warlick, the associate head coach who directed the Lady Vols during games and addressed reporters postgame with other assistants taking on much more of the workload in an emotionally draining season that felt like a farewell tour it wound up being.
Yet 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 while overseeing a Division I program with a busy national travel schedule.
After losing to eventual national champ Baylor in a regional final, Warlick’s tears during the postgame news conference gave a glimpse of the possibility it was Summitt’s last game.
“It has been a privilege to make an impact on the lives of 161 women who have worn orange,” Summitt said. “I am so proud of them the Lady Vols student athletes and the honor to see them graduate and become successful young women.”