Wiedmer: Sad, sad day for UT

Wiedmer: Sad, sad day for UT

August 24th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Aug. 23, 2011, may go down as both the saddest day and cruelest joke in University of Tennessee athletics history.

That is when the Big Orange Nation learned that its grandest bastion of integrity and success -- Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summitt -- is suffering from early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.

The cruel joke, however, is the news that followed Summitt's announcement. Former UT men's coach Bruce Pearl apparently will be officially notified by the NCAA today that there will be a multiyear show-cause penalty against his future collegiate employment for breaking rules, then lying about his misdeeds.

If ever there were polar opposites in the way they ran their programs, it was Bruce Almighty and Perfect Pat, and Pearl's antics unjustly have stolen Summitt's news hole more than once, though this latest intrusion was clearly not his doing.

But with every UT fan from Morristown to Memphis already forced to come to grips with their Hall of Fame coach's tragic medical news, it seems the least the NCAA could have done to soften that blow was to delay announcing its Big Orange sanctions for a day or so.

After all, it is the 59-year-old Summitt who may best exemplify what the NCAA wishes all its coaches could be. She graduates more than 95 percent of her players. She never breaks a rule and doesn't quietly suffer those who do. She demands character, ethics and sportsmanship from everyone around her all the time.

In fact, the first thing the NCAA should do upon her retirement a year or two from now is name the NCAA women's championship hardware in her honor. Make it the Summitt Trophy, much as the Lombardi Trophy goes to the Super Bowl champ, because women's college basketball is Pat Summitt.

But at least we may now know why there was so little push to make her the overall athletic director after men's AD Mike Hamilton was pushed out over the NCAA investigations into men's basketball, football and baseball.

To be blunt, there just isn't time. As Dr. Michael Kaplan told ESPN when asked how long Summitt has left to capably run the program she's guided to 1,071 wins and eight national championships over the past 37 seasons: "I think it's reasonable she can coach this season."

In other words, we're likely dealing with one more Summitt campaign, two at the most. Has the Big Orange Nation in particular and women's basketball in general ever suffered a worse punch to the gut?

Yet many worried through last winter that something just wasn't quite right with Summitt, even as her team again crushed the Southeastern Conference in both the regular season and league tourney.

Her face sometimes appeared puffy. Her words occasionally lacked their usual punch and precision. But she initially thought it was a reaction to an arthritis medication she was taking and vowed to correct it after the season.

When it got no better, she visited the Mayo Clinic in May, which led to the diagnosis that has the entire sports world in shock today.

Yet Summitt being Summitt, she's already combatting the enemy with intelligence and intensity, taking whatever medicine is available and working her brain extra hard each night by reading and doing puzzles.

"There's not going to be any pity party," she said, "and I'll make sure of that."

There is little question that the Lady Vols coaching staff and players will make sure this uneasy road to retirement goes as smoothly as possible. You can find no more experienced, loyal team of assistants anywhere than Mickie DeMoss, Holly Warlick and Dean Lockwood, who have 89 years worth of coaching experience among them.

Beyond that, this season's Lady Vols would have been a favorite in many corners to claim the national championship if it had been business as usual. Now, with Summitt's career swiftly winding down, there can be little doubt that Tennessee's mission will be to send the winningest coach in four-year-college basketball history -- men or women -- out with a ninth NCAA women's title.

By the way, that also would give her one national championship for every UT men's hoops coach who has tried and failed to equal her lofty standards during her Big Orange career.

But no matter what happens over the next few months or couple of years, the Big Orange Nation should reserve most of its pity for the poor soul who must one day attempt to follow her.