“I often times tell our players, ‘It’s never as great as it seems. Nor is it as bad.’”
With Shakespearean irony, Pat Summitt’s words from her Hall of Fame induction speech in 2000 echoed between the lines of her announcement that she would be stepping down as head coach of the women’s basketball team at Tennessee after 38 years and eight national titles.
On one hand, Summitt’s career could not have been greater. Her success has placed her among the most influential people in women’s sports and made her the face of Tennessee athletics. As her win total rose, so did respect and attention for women’s basketball.
Game attendance grew from tens to tens of thousands, and her salary shot up from one that better resembles a dinner bill at Ruth’s Chris to one that demanded seven figures and rivaled some of the most successful coaches in the nation (men or women).
Seated next to her son Tyler, (who recently accepted an assistant coaching position with the women’s basketball team at Marquette) media members from the most prominent news outlets across the nation gathered Thursday for Summitt’s announcement to step down that was broadcast live on ESPN.
Even the president acknowledged Summitt’s greatness, announcing she would receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest medal awarded to a civilian.
But despite all the praise and accolades poured out to her, her situation is far worse than it seems.
Sooner rather than later, dementia will steal everything from Summitt. It will take her brilliant mind, her unrelenting determination and her uncompromising character. The woman who was so key in bringing national attention to women’s athletics will, without miraculous medical advances, lose everything about herself.
Gone is the John Wooden-like retirement where her wisdom is revered for decades after her final game. Gone is the Bob Knight-like career transition where her insight from the announcer’s table continues to promote the women’s game through television and radio. And gone is the Tom Osborne or Barry Alvarez ending, where years of success translates to leadership in university administration or public office.
Medication may slow the syndrome’s progression and may allow her some years to fill her new position as coach emeritus, but the end of Summitt’s story will likely end with the very thing she wants least; pity.
For her career, Summitt’s words from her Hall of Fame speech could not be more of an understatement, in greatness or tragedy.