Keeping Score

Why Tennessee’s Pat Summitt Just Had Her Best Season

The Hall-of-Famer nearly coached her team to the Final Four, despite battling early onset Alzheimer's.

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Nati Harnik / AP

Tennessee coach Pat Summitt waits for her players during a timeout in the second half of an NCAA women's college basketball tournament regional final against Baylor on March 26, 2012 in Des Moines, Iowa.

The season ended for the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team on Monday night, as the Lady Vols fell to undefeated Baylor and the best player in the game, 6’8″ center Brittney Griner, 77-58. (Both Baylor and Stanford have advanced to the women’s Final Four in Denver.) When Pat Summitt, Tennessee’s Hall of Fame coach, doesn’t take home the national title, it’s usually a disappointment. After all, Summitt has won eight championships, and 1,098 games in her 38 years at Tennessee.

But Summitt should be celebrated. Last summer Summitt, who had been experiencing memory lapses, announced that the Mayo Clinic diagnosed her with early onset Alzheimer’s. Summitt decided to keep coaching. I’m a fan of Summitt — I’ve sat in on a Tennessee practice, and man, can she coach, and have seen her in more informal settings, and man, is she fun to be around. Still, I wondered if this decision was fair to her players. You get one opportunity to play college basketball, and Summitt recruited some of the best players in the country to Tennessee. If these young women could not play for a coach who was 100%, were they being shortchanged?

(MORE: Pat Summitt’s Toughest Opponent Yet: Early Onset Alzheimer’s)

Summitt, however, handled the situation beautifully — which is no surprise, really. She delegated the day-to-day management of practices and games to her assistants. Was it a bit awkward to see a woman designated as the head coach acting more like a consultant on the sideline? Sure. Summitt also did not speak at news conferences; associate head coach Holly Warlick took over as voice of the team. Tennessee finished 29-7, and won the Southeastern Conference tournament. The players voiced no complaints. Knowing they were still representing one of the most storied programs in basketball, they played hard, and with pride. They played like a Pat Summitt team.

We’re approaching the 40th anniversary of Title IX — ESPN, in fact, just launched a site dedicated to covering the landmark legislation, which includes an interview with President Obama. “For those of us who grew up just as Title IX was taking off, to see the development of women’s role models in sports, and for girls to know that if they excelled in something, there would be a spot for them in college where they weren’t second-class, I think has helped to make our society more equal in general,” Obama said about Title IX’s impact. No one has done more to uphold the legacy of Title IX than Summitt. Her players graduate. Her teams helped drive more interest in women’s basketball than any Title IX pioneer could have anticipated, since women’s sports were always an afterthought on college campuses.

Summitt may have coached her last game. But after seeing how her players responded to her new role, I hope she comes back and does it again.

MORE: Q&A with Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt

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