When Pat Summitt came to the United States Sports Academy nearly three years ago to receive an honorary doctorate, the winningest college basketball coach in history made a pledge about how long she would continue to run the University of Tennessee Lady Vols program.
“As long as I am healthy and happy and as focused and as driven as I am right now…I’ll be the coach at Tennessee,” she told a roomful of local reporters and onlookers at a May 19, 2009 press conference. “We’ve got a great thing going and I don’t want to be the one to mess it up.”
In the summer of 2011, the 59-year-old Summitt announced she had early-onset dementia (Alzheimer’s type). The seemingly unbeatable coach now had an incurable brain disease. However, when Summitt revealed the diagnosis in August, she vowed to fight it, raise awareness and keep on coaching. For her indomitable spirit, Summitt was named the United States Sports Academy’s 2011 Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias Courage Award recipient.
More than 12,000 Lady Vols’ fans gave her a standing ovation when the Academy’s Courage Award was presented to her during the team’s season opener Nov. 13 against Pepperdine.
However, Summitt, who took over the Tennessee program as a sprite 22-year-old and went on to win eight national championships and 1,098 games during her 38-year career, stepped down this week. The fiery and legendary coach plans to continue to help as “coach emeritus” but has turned over the reins to longtime assistant Holly Warlick.
“I really do feel that the good Lord put me here for a reason and that’s to make a difference for young women in a positive way,” Summitt said during her visit to the Academy.
Academy President and CEO Dr. Thomas P. Rosandich says he has always admired Summitt’s drive and determination.
“Coach Summitt’s spirit and zest for life, as well as her courage, strength, perseverance and achievement, are the qualities you want in a leader,” Dr. Rosandich says. “Her achievements on the court, as well as her success at teaching and instilling winning attitudes in young women, will stand the test of time.”
Summitt has always said her competitiveness was honed playing basketball in a hay loft against her three older brothers who beat up on her and treated their little sis no differently than they treated each other. Back in 2009, she parted with a word of advice from her lessons learned from the dairy farm to the NCAA championship basketball court.
“As young people and even as adults, you don’t win all the time,” Summitt said. “You’re going to have setbacks, but it’s how you handle those that really define your character and your drive.”
Summitt will be missed stalking the courtside at Tennessee but she will not be forgotten.
Duwayne Escobedo is the United States Sports Academy Director of Communications. Besides his work in public relations and marketing, he has also served as a journalist for various newspapers during his career.