Commentary

Tennessee's Summitt changed game

Updated: April 19, 2012, 2:45 AM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

You can make the argument -- without apology or hesitation -- that Pat Summitt is the greatest college basketball coach of our time. At the very least, she's in the starting five.

And it's not because she won more games than any other Division I coach from A (Geno Auriemma) to K (Mike Krzyzewski) to W (John Wooden). Or that she has the same number of national championships as Krzyzewski and Adolph Rupp combined. Or that in the 31 years there's been an NCAA women's basketball tournament, her team has been in it every year -- and won eight times.

Greatness isn't measured simply by victories. It is measured by the depth and width of a coach's impact on the sport itself, on the players, on the university they represent. Find me another basketball coach who transformed and legitimized her sport more than Summitt. Find me another basketball coach whose legacy exceeds hers. I can wait.

After 38 seasons as Tennessee's women's head coach, Summitt relinquished her duties Wednesday to longtime assistant and former UT player Holly Warlick. She had little choice; the effects of early-onset dementia-Alzheimer's type had begun to leave footprints on her ability to run the program on a day-to-day basis.

[+] EnlargePat Summitt
Jim Brown/US PresswireCoach Pat Summitt helped the Lady Vols to the SEC tournament title in March.

Alzheimer's is such a cruel and selfish disease. It steals your memory. It steals away the likes of Summitt, who has spent more time on basketball courts than varnish.

Late Wednesday afternoon, I talked with associate athletic director Debby Jennings, who has spent the past 35 years in the UT athletic department. As an undergrad, Jennings had taken tennis and basketball classes taught by Summitt at Tennessee. Few at UT have known Summitt longer.

I asked Jennings to quantify Summitt's impact on women's college basketball. I should have known better. Asking that question is like asking someone to come up with a mathematical formula for love.

But Jennings tried, explaining how Summitt helped make women's basketball credible, how she pushed for more TV exposure for the game, how she helped create a brand not only for UT women's hoops, but for the sport.

"Whatever was good for the game, she did," said Jennings. "She spoke to every booster club, Kiwanis Club, Rotary Club ... Pat Summitt probably consumed more chicken in her life at those lunches and dinners than -- "

And then Jennings had to stop and compose herself.

"I'm sorry," she said. "It's been a long day."

Did Summitt make a difference? Let's see, President Obama filled out an NCAA women's tournament bracket. There are women's games galore on TV. During some years, Summitt's teams challenged the UT men's teams in attendance and exceeded them in national exposure.

Summitt, 59, is as much a part of Tennessee as The Hill, the Spam Can, the painted rock near frat row, or Rocky Top itself. So respected is Summitt that incoming football and men's basketball coaches routinely sought her support and advice.

It also wasn't uncommon for recruits from other sports to request an audience with Summitt. The story goes that one of the last people Peyton Manning spoke with before committing to a school was Summitt. He chose UT.

Her story is like no other. She came to Tennessee in 1974 as a graduate assistant to work on her master's degree, teach a pair of lower-level physical education classes and, most of all, rehab her injured knee in time for the 1976 Olympics.

For this, college basketball can thank Bettye Giles.

Giles was the women's athletic director at UT-Martin, which is where Summitt played college basketball. It was Giles, a UT-Knoxville grad and Summitt's college adviser, who helped arrange the grad assistant position.

Not long after Summitt's arrival in Knoxville, the women's basketball head coach decided to take a sabbatical to pursue a doctorate degree. Summitt was offered the job.

"The main thing I can remember is that during that very first month, I would tell her, 'Sure, you can do it, Pat. You know you can do it. You just need to settle down,'" said Giles, by phone from her home in Martin. "I gave her a number of pep talks."

And now, 38 years, 1,098 wins and 161 players later, Summitt is stepping away from the only job she has ever known.

"I think I wanted to cry," said Giles. "I kind of feel lost. Pat put a face to women's basketball in this country. Pat Summitt was the face of UT. And now they're going to miss her."

We all are. We're going to miss The Stare, Summitt's signature stink eye that could reduce players to small puddles of sweat. We're going to miss The Rivalry: Summitt versus UConn's Geno Auriemma. We're going to miss it all.

"She's such a fine person and I'm so proud of her, what she's done with this Alzheimer's situation," said Giles. "There might be something bigger than basketball for Pat Summitt."

In a bittersweet irony, Wednesday marks the day Pat Summitt quit coaching, but also the day Marquette University announced the hiring of a 21-year-old assistant for its women's basketball team.

You might have heard of him.

Tyler Summitt. Pat's kid.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter