KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The iconic Pat Summitt is stepping aside, a moment fans of the Tennessee Lady Vols and women’s basketball have been dreading since August.
Since the 59-year-old Summitt — the sports all-time winningest coach — revealed on Aug. 23 she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, the move has been anticipated. The Lady Vols played through an emotional season with Summitt’s every move studied closely for glimpses of the disease that caused her problems with memory loss.
Summitt said Wednesday the time had come.
"I’ve loved being the head coach at Tennessee for 38 years, but I recognize that the time has come to move into the future and to step into a new role," said Summitt.
Tennessee said that Summitt — the sports all-time winningest coach — will become "head coach emeritus" with long-time assistant Holly Warlick being promoted to replace her.
Tennessee has scheduled a news conference Thursday afternoon in Knoxville with Summitt and Warlick.
When the Lady Vols lost in a regional final to eventual national champion Baylor, Warlick’s tears during the postgame news conference gave a glimpse of how draining the season had been and the possible reality that it was Summitt’s last game.
Athletic director Dave Hart said summing up Summitt’s career is impossible.
"She is an icon who does not view herself in that light, and her legacy is well-defined and everlasting," Hart said. "Just like there will never be another John Wooden, there will never be another Pat Summitt. I look forward to continuing to work with her in her new role. She is an inspiration to everyone."
Summitt will report to Hart and help the women’s program she guided to eight national titles.
"I want to help ensure the stability of the program going forward," Summitt said. "I would like to emphasize that I fully intend to continue working as head coach emeritus, mentoring and teaching life skills to our players, and I will continue my active role as a spokesperson in the fight against Alzheimer’s through the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund."
Summitt supports Warlick as her replacement, the two have a long history together. Warlick was Summitt’s assistant for 27 years and a three-time All-American playing for the Hall of Fame coach.
Hart said he watched Warlick grow tremendously this season under what he called "unique circumstances" and that she is deserving of the head job. Warlick will be the first head coach the Lady Vols have had since Summitt took over in 1974.
"Her mentor will be available for insight and advice, but this is Holly’s team now," Hart said.
Warlick said she is very thankful for all Summitt has done in preparing her for this opportunity as her coach, mentor and friend.
"We will work as hard as we possibly can with the goal of hanging more banners in Thompson-Boling Arena," Warlick said.
With the blessing of University of Tennessee, Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, the Hall of Fame coach said she planned to continue coaching as long as possible and that she wanted to show the world that it was still possible to function, even in the face of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Summitt had been going about business as usual since the loss to Baylor.
But the season showed just how challenging being a Division I coach could be. Summitt needed to devote more attention to managing her health, so she had handed over more duties to her longtime assistants during the season. Warlick as associate head coach took the lead during games and handles postgame interviews, while the entire staff handled the bulk of the recruiting and management of practices.
Even with Warlick and assistant coaches Mickie DeMoss and Dean Lockwood carrying a larger load, Summitt continued to leave her mark through guidance and motivation with her trademark icy stare, even if she did wear the look more infrequently.
Then DeMoss left the program earlier this month for an assistant’s job with the Indiana Fever in the WNBA, another signal that Summitt’s tenure as head coach might be ending.
Summitt’s diagnosis came during one of the Lady Vols’ most disappointing stretches — by Summitt’s lofty standards, anyway. Tennessee hasn’t won a national championship since 2008 and hasn’t even reached the Final Four, which ties for their longest such drought in program history.
Tennessee’s five seniors were a part of the team that lost in the first round of the 2009 NCAA tournament, the only time in school history the Lady Vols had bowed out on the first weekend.
Those seniors promised they would win a ninth national championship this season not just to change their legacy and to honor Summitt, but as center Vicki Baugh put it, "We’re playing for everyone who has Alzheimer’s."
They just couldn’t get back to the Final Four, and the group of seniors wound up the first Lady Vols to miss the Final Four. They lost to Baylor and Brittney Griner, a player Summitt couldn’t convince to come to Knoxville.
It’s unlikely anyone will ever come close to matching Summitt’s accomplishments in women’s basketball, which has seen more parity in the past decade.
Summitt’s career ends with a 1,098-208 record, 16 regular season Southeastern Conference championships and 16 SEC tournament titles. She also led the 1984 Olympic team to a gold medal.
During her time, Tennessee never failed to reach the NCAA tournament, never received a seed lower than No. 5 and reached 18 Final Fours.
Her impact reaches beyond wins and losses. Every Lady Vol player who has completed her eligibility at Tennessee has graduated, and 74 former players, assistants, graduate assistants, team managers and directors of basketball operations are currently among the coaching ranks at every level of basketball.