Pat Summitt and the right to say ‘when’

I’m the type of guy who loves an underdog. It’s not often that I root for a No. 2 seed to beat a No. 11 at the NCAA Basketball Tournament, but that’s the situation I found myself in yesterday as Tennessee rallied from a 14-point deficit to knock off Kansas, 84-73, and reach the quarterfinals of the women’s tournament.

I’d like Pat Summitt to get one more trip to the Final Four in what is most likely her last go-around as head coach. Perhaps even win one more championship before walking off into the sunset, retiring on her own terms and with the sounds of celebration echoing throughout the arena rather than the quiet calls for her to just go away. For the good of the program.

Getting old sucks. Getting old and sick is much worse.

The odds are stacked against Tennessee reaching the Final Four this year. The consensus No. 1 team in the country, undefeated Baylor, stands in its way. Most likely, a 38-year career comes to an end Monday night in Des Moines, Iowa, but what do I know? Only that I recognize true excellence when I see it.

Summitt is the all-time winningest coach in either men’s or women’s basketball. Any division. She has been coaching since 1974, accumulating 1,098 victories – all with the Lady Vols.

Eight national championships in a period from 1987 through 2008.

Eighteen Final Four appearances.

In 2000, she was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and named the Naismith Basketball Coach of the Century.

In 2009, Sporting News included her in its list of the top 50 coaches of all time, encompassing Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA, and NHL as well as college basketball and football. She made the list at No. 11, the only woman to be included. I could argue that she belongs in the top 10.

What’s more, she’s been able to build this résumé while playing by the rules. When asked about recruitment ethics in 2010, Summit said, “I’ve never compromised at all, and I wouldn’t. And if I did, they should fire me.”

No one is calling for Summit’s firing. But there is a growing voice in Knoxville that is calling for her to step down. Gracefully, of course. And with all honors, too. But, most importantly, by publicly announcing that she will go away before they lose another prized recruit who cites Summitt’s health and uncertain future.

Summit revealed last August that she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. She vowed to battle the disease while continuing as Tennessee’s head coach. But it’s assistant coach Holly Warlick who has run the practices and handles the press conferences all season as Summitt cedes more control to her staff. You can still see Summit on the bench during games, but it’s a different Pat Summitt than you’re used to seeing.

From Randy Covitz of The Kansas City Star:

Ten minutes before tipoff Saturday, Tennessee women’s coach Pat Summitt walked onto the court at Wells Fargo Arena and the crowd rose as one.

Kansas coach Bonnie Hendrickson gave Summitt a hug while the fans from four schools gave her a standing ovation.

They know. The fans, opposing coaches and players. They all know they’re witnessing the end of an era even as Pat Summitt refuses to look past the next game on Tennessee’s schedule.

I just wish the fans of the Lady Vols, among the people who have benefited the most from Summit’s time at Tennessee, would understand and not push. We’re talking about a woman who has done the right thing for 38 years. She’s surrounded herself with people who love her and respect what she’s been able to accomplish. Have a little faith that they will do the right thing by her at the end of the season, which may come as early as Monday.

I don’t believe that everyone gets the right to say when enough is enough. But some people, through 38 years of unparalleled excellence, have earned that right. Pat Summitt has earned the right to say when.

For information on the Pat Summitt Foundation and how it is helping to fund research for a cure for Alzheimer’s, Please visit

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