KNOXVILLE — Pat Summitt is stepping down as the women's basketball coach at the University of Tennessee.
To think she's going away, though, would be a mistake.
After 38 seasons, 1,098 wins, eight national championships and an impact that goes far beyond the basketball court, Summitt will take on the title of head coach emeritus for the Lady Vols. It's a decision largely forced by her health. It's been less than a year since she went public with her diagnosis of early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.
While it limited how much she could do this season, it couldn't keep her away from the program she built from scratch. The press conference scheduled for 1:30 this afternoon on the Thompson-Boling Arena court named in her honor might signal an end, but not the end. Even though Summitt won't be the coach, she's not going anywhere.
"If anyone asks," she said in the UT release announcing her decision, "you can find me observing practice or in my office. Coaching is the great passion of my life, and the job to me has always been an opportunity to work with our student-athletes and help them discover what they want. I will continue to make them my passion.
"I love our players and my fellow coaches, and that's not going to change."
Wednesday was a day most expected and many feared. The images captured by television cameras throughout the season of Summitt on the sideline were indelible. The fire, the passion and the one-of-a-kind glare were missing.
The Lady Vols' loss to eventual undefeated national champion Baylor earlier this month in Des Moines, Iowa, might have ended Summitt's decorated coaching career, but it won't end her ability to impact the program she built.
"I may be old as dirt, but I'm not ready to retire," she said at SEC media days in October. "There will come a time when I'll say enough is enough. But every day I get up and I want to go to work. That's what keeps me going."
Though Summitt will keep going, the change at the top of the program is still too difficult to ignore. Such an iconic figure for the Lady Vols, UT and basketball in general is bound to leave a large void. It's one that Holly Warlick will fill.
A 27-year assistant who played for the Lady Vols, Warlick was UT's de facto head coach this season. Though she split coaching duties with fellow assistants Dean Lockwood and Mickie DeMoss, Warlick handled duties with the press. Just as they were from a slightly colder, more difficult distance this season, Summitt's fingerprints will remain on the UT program through Warlick.
"Holly Warlick has earned the opportunity," UT athletic director Dave Hart said. "I watched Holly grow tremendously as a coach throughout this past season. Under unique circumstances, the job she did away from the glare of the lights and crowds was as impressive as the job she did during game action. Her mentor will be available for insight and advice, but this is Holly's team now."
The Lady Vols' first official post-Summitt game next season could take place at McKenzie Arena. UT Chattanooga coach Wes Moore said Wednesday that UTC and the Lady Vols have had a verbal agreement in place since last fall to play at the Roundhouse on Nov. 9, in what could be the opener for both teams.
"I don't think anything will change, but we don't have a signed contract yet," Moore said. "Usually we agree on a date and that's it. It will be the first time ever that the Lady Vols played without Pat Summitt. That will be big."
Plenty of big names around the country offered kind words through various avenues after UT's announcement on Wednesday. Summitt's announcement of her condition last August generated a similar reaction. It also generated Summitt's own efforts at raising awareness for the disease that cut short her coaching career.
In January, the SEC began it's "We Back Pat" week, and shirts declaring the three-word phrase began to pop up everywhere from Thompson-Boling Arena's stand to opposing teams. Summitt's foundation has raised more than $300,000. Her role in that fight will continue.
Her role in her program will continue as well, albeit in a different capacity. Summitt can still observe practice, participate in staff meetings, watch film of games and practice and visit the Lady Vols' locker room during games as long as there's no instruction. She can still participate in "all components" of on-campus recruiting and communicate with prospects and their families.
How much exactly she's able to do, though, likely will be determined by her health.
"I recognize that the time has come to move into the future and step into a new role," she said. "I want to help ensure the stability of the program going forward."
If that's what Pat Summitt wants, that's likely what Pat Summitt will get. Tyler, her son who was a walk-on for the men's team and is taking an assistant's position at Marquette, knows Pat as well as anybody. He was prophetic in an interview with the Times Free Press last month.
"What I will promise," Tyler said, "is that Mom will always be involved in Lady Vols basketball in one capacity or another."
Staff writer John Frierson contributed to this report.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...