John Adams: Coaching trumped other opportunities for Pat Summitt

John Adams

Pat Summitt could coach the Tennessee men's basketball team. She could be the UT athletic director. She could be the governor.

Throughout her career, you have heard what else Summitt could have done. There was no reason to doubt any of those possibilities.

She was so capable. So popular. So driven to succeed at whatever she did.

Why couldn't she have coached the men's team? Why couldn't she have been the UT athletic director? Why couldn't she have been elected governor?

Yet she kept doing what she seemingly has done forever. She kept coaching women's basketball.

She will continue to do that in a different capacity. That was the best news from a sad day Wednesday when Summitt announced she was stepping down after 38 years as the Lady Vols head basketball coach. Associate head coach Holly Warlick will succeed her former coach and longtime boss as head

coach.

On a day of momentous change, one thing won't change. As a head coach emeritus, Summitt will remain with a program she has led to eight national championships. The wins and losses won't go under her name. She will lose the head-coaching title she has held for almost four decades.

But she will maintain a connection with the players. And there's probably no aspect of the job she cherishes more.

You could see that during the 2011-12 season during which her role was limited severely by early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. Although she often looked distant and uninvolved on the bench, you still could see her instructing and motivating individual players.

She couldn't run the program as she once did. She didn't have the seemingly endless stamina for coaching, recruiting and promoting. But she had her moments — moments when she could coach, teach, motivate, recruit and make a difference in a player or a team.

As much as Summitt loves winning, she loves working with players even more. In good health or bad, practice has always been a haven for her. In the days leading up to Wednesday's announcement, she had been involved in the Lady Vols' offseason workouts.

Summitt's new role apparently will keep her involved in other ways as well. She can't coach players but she can mentor them. She can't call recruits or visit them in their homes, but she can communicate with them through emails and letters and face-to-face during in-campus visits.

UT chancellor Dr. Jimmy Cheek deserves credit for the way he handled this from the outset. So does athletic director Dave Hart, who came aboard a month after Summitt announced she wanted to keep coaching despite her disease.

It's important that neither administrator was too heavy-handed. Cheek gave Summitt the green light to keep coaching last summer. Hart was extremely supportive of Summitt and the coaching staff through the most challenging of seasons.

It wasn't an optimal coaching situation, but the Lady Vols struggled through it. Warlick took the lead, the other assistants expanded their roles, and Summitt did as much as she could while battling a disease.

Along the way, she became the face of our fight against Alzheimer's. The money and awareness she raised to combat a disease ultimately might outweigh anything she accomplished as the greatest coach in her sport.

But it became obvious the program couldn't operate this way for more than a season. It also became obvious that naming Warlick as Summitt's successor would make for the smoothest of transitions.

By hiring Warlick, UT can keep Summitt involved. And it can keep what's left of a good staff intact. Assistant coach Mickie DeMoss already has taken an assistant coaching job with the Indiana Fever.

Even with the same staff, UT's next season would be challenging. The Lady Vols lose five seniors from a team that came within one game of the Final Four. The health of returning player Taber Spani also is an issue. She looked like an All-SEC player early in the season, but a knee injury significantly reduced her effectiveness in the second half of the season.

The most obvious challenge facing the new coach has nothing to do with personnel. The difficulties in replacing a legend in any sport are well documented.

But in this case, the legend won't be looming over the new coach. She will be there beside her.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or adamsj@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/johnadamskns.

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Comments » 6

vut5686#1405392 writes:

A very well done article. This is not being a "homer." Just the facts, which speak for themselves. The comments releative to the decision to retain Holly as HC were also handled appropriately. JA can produce when he chooses to. Too bad most offerings do not rise to this level. But credit is due for this one.

underthehill writes:

Lot of truth in this article..I could see where Pat would have been a great Athletic Director and I do believe she could have been elected Governor..but this would have been a huge step down as far as I am concerned..John appears way off base to say Spani looked like an ALL-SEC player early..Spani has never shown the speed it takes to be an all around player and would best serve the team only as a spot player shooting uncontested outside shots...otherwise..this is another good artice by John Adams..and his headline is right on...

jimr07 writes:

Great tribute to Pat on Dan Patrick show this morning.. just goes to show the respect she has all over the country...

troubleinc writes:

I've never said this before, but nice article Mr. Adams. Well done sir.

Fall_Creek_Vols writes:

Thank you, John. Well done.

tovolny writes:

John, you did a good job here. A nice touch from the senior sports writer. You maintained respect and class for both Pat and UT. Again, "pretty good job"...THANKS.

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