Walking back onto the campus at the University of Tennessee is always a rush of emotions for me. I was a student there in the late 90s, watched the Vols win a National Championship in Neyland and I watched the Lady Vols win not one, but two NCAA titles. I love Knoxville. It is a place where I feel comfortable and happy. A home surrounded by hundreds of like minded Volunteer fans. Though yesterday there was a sadness that hung over the city like the clouds on the surrounding Smoky Mountains.
I don’t remember the Lady Vols without Pat Summitt. She is as much an ingrained part of my Volunteer life as the Torchbearer at Circle Park; but she has stepped down from the position she has held for almost 40 years. It has been a rollercoaster for those of us looking in on the story that has played out in Knoxville over the last 8 months.
Pat Summitt came out publicly and announced her dementia diagnosis in August of last year. In the fashion that has come to be expected from her, she did not shrink from the media or their questions but fiercely took her diagnosis head on, establishing The Pat Summitt Foundation to research and contribute to an Alzheimer’s cure. We Backed Pat, we bought the shirts, pledged money and rooted on the greatest coach in the game. She was grace under pressure and the embodiment of what you had come to expect from First Lady of the Volunteer Nation. She makes you proud to bleed orange because she is the iconic basketball legend Pat Summitt.
Yesterday she graciously stepped down as head coach of The University of Tennessee Lady Vols.
Athletic director, Dave Hart took a special moment to recognize Tyler Summitt seated by his mother, who announced that even as Coach Summitt leaves her position, he has accepted one as an assistant coach at Marquette. The high five shared by mother and son was a poignant moment to start off the press conference.
There were countless moments that drove home how meaningful this time on the floor of “The Summitt” really were, including the recognition of long time women’s Athletic Director Joan Cronan who is retiring at the end of the year.
Coach Summitt went on to talk about her early days as coach of the Lady Vols, stressing what a privilege it had been for her to impact 161 Lady Vols that have come through the program during her tenure. Something that she placed special emphasis on was the support that she has been given over the years by “the best fans in the country.”
She now takes on a new role as Head Coach Emeritus but she made a promise to the team seated before her that she is still dedicated to her time with the players. She wants to continue to build success with The Pat Summitt Foundation. There was a challenge to the fans to step up and support Holly Warlick. Turning over her whistle to Coach Warlick put the crowd of media on its feet to a standing ovation.
President Obama awarded Pat Summitt the Medal of Freedom yesterday morning. When asked, Coach almost waved it away in her attempt to emphasize that her priority in her new role is to keep coming in everyday and spending time with the student athletes. Tyler drove her point home when he added that in stepping down she put the team before herself. He is a shining example that his mother worked hard to instill in him and those around her that discipline comes first.
When the attention shifted to Holly Warlick, she addressed the bittersweet moment saying, “It has been an honor to coach alongside and learn from Coach Pat Summitt.”
AD Hart talked at length about the passion and the heart of the fans of Tennessee. He then said that his decision to hire Holly Warlick as head coach rather than begin a nationwide search was based, “on her perfomance under the unique circumstances of the season” while “watching her grow as a person, a coach, and a leader.”
He added that it was exciting to watch “the hometown girl coach the greatest team in America.”
I had the opportunity to speak with Vols coach Cuonzo Martin and new coach Holly Warlick after the press conference.
I asked Coach Martin, since he is new to the program, what does the new “changing of the guard” mean to him?
Coach Martin: “Coach Warlick is not new to the University of Tennessee by any means and the men’s team will be taking cues and tips from Coach Summitt and Holly. There is a powerhouse program already in place here on campus and there is a bright future for all of us.”
Coach Warlick had her own thoughts on the day. I wanted to know if she had seen herself in this position when she started as an assistant all those years ago....
Holly Warlick: “I was always excited to be on board with the Lady Vols. This is an honor that I plan to give the same dedication to as a coach as Coach Summitt has done over her tenure here.”
There was a sense of quiet acceptance and sweet memories as we left the floor of Thompson Boling arena yesterday afternoon. It wasn’t hard to let yourself be caught up in a defining moment for the the Lady Vols and for The University of Tennessee. There are bright days ahead and much to be remembered from a remarkable past.
Holly Warlick has been charged to keep the Lady Vols on “the Summitt” of women’s college basketball and it is most definitely a job that she is more than prepared to accomplish.