Tuesday, April 24, 2012

I Back Pat

Just a few days ago, my alma mater, The University of Tennessee, announced that legendary women's basketball coach Pat Summitt was stepping down. You've probably heard all about it--since being diagnosed with Alzheimer's-type early onset dementia, it was just a matter of time until the realities of her condition made it impossible for her to deal with the complexities of managing what is quite probably the biggest brand in women's college athletics. Her record of 1,098 victories, eight national titles, and the foregone conclusion of a high seed in the NCAA tournament place her in the rare company of Wooden, Smith, and Rupp. When the Pride of the Southland Marching Band lined up to march to the football games outside the old UT Music Building (now demolished as a new facility is under construction), they lined up on Pat Head Summitt Street. The basketball court at Thomson-Boling Arena is now officially recognized as "The Summitt." She has not only done the job better than just about everyone else, she did it in such a way that she revolutionized her own sport, and it could be said that not only women's basketball but women's college athletics and professional athletics have prospered as a result. Fans would often speculate that she would be offered the men's basketball coaching job--not just because of the often abysmal state of men's basketball at UT, but because she was just that good.

 I remember a couple of personal interactions with Coach Summitt during my time in college. One is in March of 1998 when the Lady Vols were in Kansas City for the Final Four, which they won to cement an undefeated season. I remember some of us in the pep band chasing her then-young son Tyler around while we waited for the luggage to be unloaded from the charter flight, and while Coach Summitt was in a good mood, she was clearly all business. But my strongest memory comes from my sophomore year football home opener against UCLA. (We won the game behind our junior quarterback Peyton Manning.) After the halftime show, I was walking through one of the concourses at Neyland Stadium. Coach Summitt happened to be walking by, and seeing me in my band uniform, walked over and said something to the effect of, "I just wanted to tell you that I thought y'all did a great job out there, and I always enjoy watching band!" She then went on her way, while I stood there, probably drooling on my shoes while trying to comprehend having just been personally complimented by Pat Summitt.

 While it is certainly sad to see such a legend step down, the victims of dementia and other mental illnesses and their families have gained one of the strongest, most inspiring advocates they could ever hope to have. Unfortunately, this is the type of thing that one doesn't defeat. However, those of us who have seen her at work know just how Coach, now Coach Emeritus Summitt, will face the challenge--like a champion.

Alzheimer's Foundation of America

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