Commentary

Summitt always larger than life

Originally Published: April 19, 2012
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW

Pat Summitt had what was perhaps her last big news conference Thursday in Knoxville, Tenn., on the Thompson-Boling Arena court that's named after her. Watching it was a reminder of the things that have made Summitt so likable and larger-than-life.

She was gracious and generous. She made a few jokes and some sweet gestures, such as giving her practice whistle to Holly Warlick, the longtime assistant now moving into the head coach's role at Tennessee. She gazed fondly at the newest women's basketball coach named Summitt: her son, Tyler, who has taken an assistant's job at Marquette.

Several University of Tennessee officials were there, praising Summitt and taking part, if you will, in the baton handoff. It felt historic and sad, surreal and uplifting. And if you have seen any of the Tennessee games being rerun on ESPN Classic and ESPNU since the announcement Wednesday that Summitt was stepping aside to a head coaching emeritus position, you might be reeling a little, emotionally, at the juxtapositions.

Tyler Summitt
AP Photo/Wade PayneThrough cutting down nets and helping his mom deal with her dementia diagnosis, Tyler Summitt was at Pat Summitt's side again Thursday.

On one channel Thursday, Summitt had officially just said goodbye to being a head coach. On another channel, she was going against UConn's Geno Auriemma in a thrilling national semifinal decided in overtime in 1996, both rival coaches looking almost astonishingly youthful in their 40s.

There were other games to be relived by opening up those video vaults. Summitt guiding a 10-loss Tennessee team over undefeated UConn in the 1997 Elite Eight. Summitt winning a third consecutive NCAA title in 1998. Summitt, nine years later, winning her seventh NCAA championship. And a year after that, adding trophy No. 8 in 2008. She was 55 that night in Tampa, Fla., and on top of her world again, with no apparent finish line in sight.

Wednesday night, I was on the phone with one of my best friends, both of us watching again that 1996 UConn-Tennessee classic that was played two years before we met. When it happened, I had been there in Charlotte, N.C., covering that Final Four; she'd been a junior in college.

It was hilarious how we found ourselves reacting to this game from 16 years ago as if it were happening live. We'd say, "Look out for Spinderella!" at one of Michelle Marciniak's spin moves to the basket. Or when Kara Wolters picked up her fourth foul: "Come on, ref! Don't do that to Big Girl! That was all ball!"

As regulation was winding down, I said, "OK, want to make a bet? I say Marciniak will hit both these free throws, then Nykesha Sales will come down and nail a 3 to tie it. Then Marciniak will miss a good look at the buzzer, and we'll go to overtime. What do say? How much you want to wager on that?"

My friend laughed and said, "I don't think I'm going to bet you. Something tells me you know how this ends."

Of course, we didn't know then -- or even one year ago -- how things would end for Summitt as a head coach. We were sure she'd be on the sidelines until she didn't feel like it anymore, and maybe people would be living on other planets by then. We expected that she'd always be there, defying time and age and the younger coaches who rose to challenge her.

Now that a very, very different conclusion to Summitt's coaching career has come, we can't quite believe it. We don't want to. Because among the many things that Summitt gave women's basketball, one of the most cherished -- at least by me -- was unassailable legitimacy. The person who never big-timed anybody was undeniably big-time even in the most macho corners of the sports world.

When Summitt walked into a room of reporters, everyone sat up a little straighter. I loved watching that. Even the curmudgeons who thought they were above covering this sport had respect for her. She had a presence that everyone felt, almost like her own personal force field that protected her integrity and status at all times. The biggest critics in my business didn't dismiss Summitt, nor did they even seem to want to. She was so much bigger than any of their prejudices.

Summitt, though, did not want to be elevated separately from the whole of women's basketball. She wanted to bring it -- and everyone who participated in it -- right along with her. When programs elevated their status, Summitt always put them on Tennessee's schedule. If you got to be good, you got to play the Lady Vols. Summitt made sure of that.

There are a few grumbling UConn fans left -- most have graciously buried the hatchet in the rivalry -- who will talk about her canceling the series with the Huskies in 2007. But whatever your view on that, the series started in 1995 because Summitt was willing to do it -- and then keep it going for 12 years.

[+] EnlargePat Summitt
AP Photo/Wade PaynePat Summitt gave her whistle to longtime assistant and new Tennessee coach Holly Warlick on Thursday.

Obviously, Summitt wanted to win the NCAA title every year, but she knew that the sport needed multiple challengers to the throne to grow. For instance, when Duke upset Tennessee in the 1999 Elite Eight, preventing the Lady Vols from the chance to win a fourth title in a row, Summitt understood that as hard as it was for her, it was a testament to what she'd done for the sport.

She'd inspired other programs to raise the bar, in large part by being the target that they could shoot for.

And she also grasped that her players, even when heartbroken, were getting something very valuable from the experience.

"It's a game," she said after that loss to Duke, "and winning and losing both can be great ways to teach kids how to get ready for the real world."

Summitt wants to keep passing on those lessons for as long as she can in her coaching emeritus role at Tennessee. Alzheimer's is a disease that disorients, which is why less travel and more familiarity in surroundings are so important for Summitt now. She is home, and that's where she will continue to impact the program she built.

There are questions to be answered, certainly, about where Tennessee goes from here. Warlick has two assistant-coach openings to fill, which she said should happen in the next week or so. Recruiting has begun in earnest. The hometown girl Warlick -- born and raised in Knoxville -- is now the one making the decisions.

Might she decide to play UConn again at some point? Would the Huskies be open to it? How will recruits react to coming to Tennessee to play for Warlick? While her X's and O's are very similar to that of Summitt's -- as one would expect after their 27 years as colleagues -- Warlick's motivational ability now will truly have to take its own shape.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Cheek , Holly Warlick , Dave Hart , Pat Summitt, Tyler Summitt
Randy Sartin/US PresswireThe court at Thompson-Boling Arena was named "The Summitt" in March 2005, when Pat Summitt won her 880th game to become the all-time winningest coach in Division I history.

And that is a factor in coaching that can't be understated. Those of us who've watched Summitt for 30 years (or more) can attest to the fact that as much as she won games by recruiting and teaching superior talent, she also had an uncanny ability to will her squad to win. Even in those games when the Lady Vols didn't play that well or, in a few cases, weren't the better team.

I have another friend who successfully battled cancer years ago, and credits Summitt with helping her do it. Not that they've ever met. But there was a passage in the book, "Reach for the Summitt," that my friend typed out and put on her refrigerator with a magnet to read every single day. It's still there -- the paper yellowed now after 14 years -- but the sentiment is not any less powerful.

"When you chose to be a competitor, you choose to be a survivor. When you choose to compete, you make the conscious decision to find out what your real limits are, not just what you think they are. Competition trains you to accept risks and endure setbacks. By embracing it, you can enhance your life. But it will also pull you through those painful, frightening every-day battles that we all have to face at one time or another. Ask yourself, "Are you a competitor?"

It's that philosophy that is guiding Summitt through this largest of challenges. It's what kept her tone light Thursday. It's what made her insist to Warlick, "Stop worrying about me. You need to be happy today." It's why she is so proud to send Tyler off to his first job, in Milwaukee, encouraging him to move forward in his life.

"It's exciting to follow a legend," Warlick said. And even if we suspect that is not how she feels because she wishes none of this were even happening right now, it's the way Summitt wants her to approach it.

"Are you a competitor?"

Ultimately, Summitt always has dispersed her power, rather than hoarded it. When you are around her, you palpably feel you are in the presence of greatness. But it's also as if that greatness is saying, "You are very welcome to join me."

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.