Pat Summitt's way will lead Lady Vols

The day after Tennessee lost in the first round of the 2009 NCAA tournament to Ball State, the Lady Vols' first-ever first-round loss, Pat Summitt took her team home to Knoxville and put it on the practice court, in front of cameras, for all to see.

Falling down, without picking yourself up, was not acceptable to the winningest coach in the history of college basketball.

There's no day-after practice to counteract what Summitt announced today, a dreadful diagnosis of early onset dementia at 59 years old.

No way dribbling a ball or running sprints is going to soften this unfathomable blow. No way shooting free throws is going to make this better.

But there is a way for the proud Tennessee women's basketball program to move forward: play hard, play tough and play the way Summitt has taught them. Become a team that follows the example of resilience and courage Summitt is about to show the world.

Summitt's diagnosis comes at a time at which the Lady Vols' program is still trying to reclaim its place among the best in women's basketball.

One of the most storied and recognizable programs in women's sports history has been trying to live up to its high standards the past few years. And it hasn't been easy.

Since Candace Parker left on the heels of a national championship in 2008, the luster of Tennessee women's basketball has undeniably dulled.

The unprecedented first-round loss in 2009 has been followed by two more Final Four-less seasons in which the Lady Vols lost too soon or just weren't as good or as deep as the team that sent them home.

The women's basketball world has pined for the excitement of the Tennessee-Connecticut matchup -- canceled by Summitt after a very public dust-up with UConn coach Geno Auriemma -- which put a spotlight on the women's game in a way that few other things can.

Over the past three years, Summitt has publicly expressed frustration with a group of players who, while talented, can't at times seem to match the toughness and drive of predecessors, such as Parker, Tamika Catchings and Chamique Holdsclaw.

There have been injuries, careers ended early and players who have transferred.

Tennessee has seemed like something less than fully Tennessee.

But Pat Summitt, who has been suffering from a series of health problems the past 18 months, has never been less than fully Pat Summitt: competitive, driven, formidable, stubborn. Her decision to stay with her team -- she told the Washington Post she hopes to coach three more years -- is a reflection of all of that.

"I could have retired," Summitt told the Post in a video interview released Tuesday. "Right now we are trying to get this team where it needs to be ... I'm not going to let this keep me from coaching ... that's for sure. If anything, it's going to inspire me more to help them."

But it is almost impossible to know how Summitt's health issues are going to impact the program. There are many questions without answers:

How will Summitt's health issues impact the day-to-day functioning of the program?

Will her story become a distraction for her players and her assistant coaches?

How will her impressive incoming freshmen class -- ranked No. 1 in the nation by ESPN Hoopgurlz.com -- react to the very real possibility Summitt will not be on the bench for the length of their careers?

Will the privacy she's asked for while she tends to her health be granted to a coach who has always done so much more than many others to invite attention to the women's game?

And perhaps the biggest question: How will recruits -- high school girls and families who want the best experience for their daughters -- view the immediate future of Tennessee women's basketball and Summitt's role?

Can the Lady Vols get back to the Final Four this way?

While the story plays out, Summitt's players will get perhaps the biggest lesson of their lives in dealing with adversity, more than any loss on the basketball court could provide them.

Summitt surely will provide them a daily example of what you do when life knocks you down.

You get up, and you go back to basketball.

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