Grateful Summitt steps aside

On Thursday, one of the most successful coaches in the history of sports symbolically — and, as always, graciously and gracefully — put her whistle around the neck of her longest-tenured assistant coach.

Legendary Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt sits alongside her son, Tyler, during a press conference Thursday afternoon at Thompson-Boling Arena to discuss her new role as head coach emeritus.

Pat Summitt’s time as the University of Tennessee’s head women’s basketball coach is finished.

Summitt formally released the news Wednesday and met the media one day later, sitting on a stage atop the court named in her honor and beneath her eight national-championship banners hanging in the Thompson-Boling Arena rafters.

“Thank you for allowing me to be your head coach,” Summitt said.

It might take a while to count those saying, “You’re welcome.”

Summitt, the winningest coach in men’s or women’s college basketball history and the only NCAA coach with more than 1,000 wins, never planned to retire at age 59. But she never expected to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, either, and that’s what happened last summer.

“The Good Lord has a plan for my life,” Summitt said. “The Good Lord has blessed me in so many ways.”

All sides involved insisted that the decision ultimately was Summitt’s to make. Her only child, son Tyler, who just graduated from UT in three years and accepted an assistant’s position on the Marquette women’s staff, mentioned that before mentioning anything else.

“First of all, I want to say this was her decision,” said Tyler Summitt, who walked onto the UT’s men’s team as a player. “My mom’s always taught me to put the team before yourself, and she thought this was the best thing for the Lady Vols program.”

Former Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summitt (right) and current coach Holly Warlick

This was indeed the right decision at the right time, Pat Summitt added.

“It’s never a good time, but you have to find the time you think is the right time, and that time is now,” she said. “I just felt it was time for me to step down, knowing Holly was going to be in great hands. She’s going to be a great coach."

UT athletic director Dave Hart accepted Summitt’s resignation as head women’s basketball coach and named her head coach emeritus, a role that will allow her to stay closely involved with the program in various capacities.

Hart, as many have done the past two days, lavished lofty praised on Summitt, suggesting she was the greatest coach in basketball history and that no one has ever meant more to a university than what she means to UT.

“The accomplishments are staggering,” Hart said. “You think to yourself, 'Someone’s making this stuff up.’ It truly goes into that category where you think it’s very surreal in nature. But it’s very, very real.

“She doesn’t know what an average season looks like. Nothing’s normal about Pat Summitt’s standards in any way, shape or form.”

The President of the United States agreed, apparently. The White House on Thursday announced that President Barack Obama will give Summitt the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States —  “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

Summitt is just the 21st person associated with athletics to win the award, and just the second woman — Billie Jean King in 2009 was the first.

“Obviously I didn’t see that coming, but it’s a tremendous honor, and I appreciate it very much,” Summitt said.

Summitt, refusing as always to individually credit herself with anything, referred to the Lady Vols’ many accomplishments as a collective effort. But she didn’t deny what her program has done and continues to do.

“It’s been a magnificent journey,” she said. “We have grown the game of women’s basketball each and every day.”

Summitt on multiple occasions thanked the coaches, players and fans who helped her cultivate a program with nearly unparalleled success on and off the court. Of the 161 student-athletes who played for her, every one who stayed at UT at least four years earned a degree.

“That’s an amazing accomplishment,” UT-Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek said.

Summitt also on multiple occasions mentioned that she isn’t leaving either; she’s just working in a different role. That role, she insisted, will include her booming voice and famous, thousand-yard stare.

“I’m still gonna yell at the players,” she said. “They may not like that, but it makes me feel good.”

Not long after telling Hart in private that the promotion of Warlick — an assistant of her’s for 27 years — would “excite me,” Summitt told reporters she couldn’t think of a better person to carry the Tennessee torch.

“The success of the Lady Vols will always continue,” she said.

Warlick said she’d planned to contain her excitement before Summitt rebuked her.

And Warlick, like always, did what Summitt demanded.

“Today I feel like the luckiest person in the world,” said Warlick, whose retired jersey as a player hangs a half-court shot from the Lady Vols’ championship banners. “This has always been my dream, and this is my home.”

Contact Wes Rucker at wesrucker247@gmail.com, twitter.com/wesrucker247 or facebook.com/wesrucker247

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