Blogs > Elm City to Eagleville

A blog on UConn women's basketball.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Reaction to news of Pat Summitt stepping down

The talk of Pat Summitt moving into a different role at Tennessee began to intensify at the Final Four earlier this month.

The rumor was the associate head coach Holly Warlick would take over as Tennessee women's basketball coach while Pat Summitt would serve in a new position inside the Tennessee athletic department. The scuttlebutt proved to be accurate as today it was announced that Summitt was named head coach emeritus while Warlick would become the first new women's coach for the Lady Volunteers since Summitt was handed the reins to the program back in 1974.

One of the first people I reached out to today to get reaction was Big East associate commissioner Danielle Donehew. Donehew spent nearly a decade at Tennessee serving a role in the athletic department including being in charge of basketball operations on Summitt's staff.

Donehew was rather emotional when talking about the move pretty much the way I am sure former colleagues of John Wooden and Dean Smith would have been had I interviewed them back when those icons stepped aside.

It is tough enough to see a true legend like Summitt move aside but the fact that the move was made in large part because of Summitt's battle with early-onset dementia only brings out more emotion from those in Summitt's inner circle.

The first part of my interview with Donehew she spoke about issues a little deeper than being able to coach a basketball squad.

"I think that Pat continues to teach all of us important life lessons," said Donehew, who is on the board of the Pat Summitt Foundation which was created to raise funds and awareness for dementia and Alzheimer's Disease after her diagnosis in August. "Over the course of the last season she has inspired so many with her courage and her commitment not only to her team but to the other people around the nation who are patients and caregivers of people who have dementia and Alzheimer's. I think today is a day that Pat is continuing to teach that things happen in life that we can't control but it is how we respond to them that defines our true character. Pat is continuing to teach us that no matter what happens, she is always going to think of others and do her part to help; whether it is supporting the program that she built by handing the reins to the new head coach Holly Warlick, continuing to mentor and be a great role model in the lives of the student-athletes at Tennessee.  Pat will continue to give to the game. I think this is a great day for the game of women's basketball to see that she will continue to be a part of the game and being a great example to all of us to be a mentor, a leader and an encourager and an inspirer to all the good that the game stands for. We are all excited to continue to have her in this game.

"I think for her new passion, in terms of fighting dementia and Alzheimer's, this day is significant because she will continue to commit her time and her energy to her foundation and continue with her vision and her focus of giving to patients and their caregivers, helping to enable the scientists and the doctors that are on the front lines. She hopes that her foundation and by fighting publicly, she can help create a greater awareness of the need of the nation to unite against this challenge. She hopes that she and her foundation might be a part of the solution and be a great teammate to all of the others that are in the fight. Today is a big day for Pat's commitment to fighting through her Pat Summitt foundation and I think it is a big day for the University of Tennessee. I would really like to compliment them for continuing to commit to Pat and I know she is really excited to continue in her role there at the university and for her to now be the head coach emeritus she will be able to do what she loves which is mentoring and giving to the student-athletes and to the coaching staff."

The next question I poses to her was how she would address somebody 10 years down the road who never got to see Summitt coaching at Tennessee and specifically how she would try to explain to them the full extent of Summitt's legacy.
 
"I think her legacy is certainly a rich one. I would want people to know that she was disciplined, driven, and intense. She embodies a fierce will, a love of competition and a love of teaching the game. She is such a great teacher and motivator. She found a special way to see a student-athlete and she would see what they could become. Then she would work  to help them get there. She was dedicated to her student-athletes and she always gave them her best." 
 
Finally since it was pretty clear that Donehew knew of Summitt's decision well before today's announcement, I wanted her insight on the timing of the announcement because it seems to me like she wanted to wait until her players had their moments in the sun at the WNBA draft before the news got out about her decision to step down.
 
"She wanted to put the student-athletes first. As she competed over these 38 seasons, she was not only a great competitor on the basketball court but she was a huge advocate of women's athletics. With all of her decisions, committees, her work with USA Basketball, with all the work that she did on a day by day basis with all the constituencies of the game, her priority was to grow the game and help build the game of women's basketball into something that was stable, was exciting for fans and was positive.  She had a vision for the game that made you want to believe in. I am sure she will be remembered as one of our greatest ambassadors of the game and someone who was truly a pioneer and saw a vision  of what our game could be long before it was close to that."
 
I also spoke with Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault. Although he hasn't drafted a Tennessee player he has gotten to know Summitt and her staff pretty well during his time in the WNBA.

"You are talking about somebody's real life as opposed to their basketball life which is more important," Thibault said. "Everybody has talked about her greatness, what she has done. She will go down as one of the greatest coaches male or female in college sports. The game will miss her. She has helped elevate the game, made the women's game relevant. I have had the pleasure of being around them, coaching them, coaching some of her players and she has an unbelievably high-class, quality program and I think the basketball world will miss her. She is making sure she has things in her life prioritized and in order."

I asked Thibault what impressed him the most about the way Summitt ran things at Tennessee.

"Like a lot of the top programs whether it is UConn, Tennessee, Stanford and others everybody is held accountable for what they do there," Thibault said. "Coaches and players hold themselves to a higher standard, the team comes first, you are to be a student first, those kinds of things were a priority. Pat was very open to visitors coming in and watching, getting to see things up close."

Finally, the WBCA sent out a statement from their president Beth Bass, a long-time friend of Summitt's.

"When you think of women’s basketball, you think of Pat Summitt. She is the first female coach whose name literally has become synonymous with her sport.

“Of course, we all know her record -- the thousand victories, the eight national championships, and so on -- but we’ll never be able to adequately put into words the contributions Pat has made to women’s basketball and, specifically, to the women’s basketball coaching profession. She is a mentor, role model and inspiration to so many. All coaches of girls’ and women’s basketball have her to thank in large part for the success our game now enjoys.

“Pat is a founding member of the WBCA. She was present in the meeting held during the Olympic Festival in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1981, to discuss the formation of a women’s basketball coaches association. She has been a member and tremendous supporter of the WBCA ever since. We will forever be indebted to her for what she has done through the years for this association.”

Although the quote below was not uttered today, the words of Baylor coach Kim Mulkey spoken when I was at Madison Square Garden for the Maggie Dixon Classic were ones which had to be repeated so I went through my files and found what Mulkey said about Summitt.

"My cell phone was on and you kept getting the ding, ding, ding, ding and the first thought is that it's your children. After about the fourth ding, which is a text message, I look at it and it said what it said. I picked it up and dismissed my staff and kind of gathered my composure. I thought to myself  'I am in here stressing over a basketball game and a staff meeting and practice?' I just called her assistants Mickie (DeMoss) and I talked to Holly (Warlick) because you knew people were going to call and ask questions.  I didn't want to give an uneducated opinion or statement because that is a personal thing. I wanted to talk to them first and get a little more information. When I read the article and how Tyler (Summitt's son) was with her, I don't mind telling you and I am not too proud to say it got kind of emotional because my son is still at home with me and no son should have to stand there at his age and take care of his mom and listen to that diagnosis. My thoughts just went to Tyler. I called her about two weeks later after everything kind of died down and we just talked. I didn't go into great detail on anything, I didn't think those things were necessary. I guess the special that Robin Roberts did hit me really, really hard because there was a doctor that kind of gave a description of what we are dealing with and I didn't want to hear that.  I started hugging her there. There is not an opportunity that goes by. If I see her, I am going to hug her and that is what I did and told her I loved her."

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