Wiedmer: 'Emeritus' intent - respect, protect

Wiedmer: 'Emeritus' intent - respect, protect

April 19th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee coach Pat Summitt waits for her players during a timeout in the second half of an NCAA women's college basketball tournament regional final against Baylor, Monday, March 26, 2012, in Des Moines, Iowa. Baylor won 77-58.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Emeritus.

It sounds dignified. Scholarly. Respectful.

And if anyone deserves to live out her days as the head basketball coach emeritus of the University of Tennessee Lady Vols, it's Pat Summitt.

But with five well-chosen words Wednesday, UT athletic director Dave Hart left little doubt concerning the true meaning of the 59-year-old Summitt's new job title.

Said Hart of Holly Warlick, the longtime Lady Vols assistant who is replacing her boss of 27 years: "This is Holly's team now."

Now.

Wow.

Now, as in today, tomorrow and every day forward. Now, as in: While we deeply appreciate Pat's courageous battle against Alzheimer's, time waits for no one, and the time has come for our Hall of Fame coach to step aside, even if she'll maintain her office and a few very clearly defined ties to the team and the coaching staff.

Never mind the sweet icing everyone attempted to pile high atop this news release, as if it were a Gigi's cupcake. How Summitt told the Knoxville media, "I feel really good about my decision. I think this is going to be a win-win situation for everybody. Holly and I will work really well together."

Or how Hart noted, "I look forward to continuing to work with [Summitt] in her new role. She is an inspiration to everyone."

Or how Warlick -- a three-time Lady Vols All-American under Summitt -- said, "[Pat] is my coach, mentor and great friend, and I am honored with the opportunity to continue and add to the great tradition of this program."

All of that was wonderful, and no doubt spoken with one hundred percent sincerity. But the school also released a document titled the "head coach emeritus agreement," a stark reminder in icy black and white of just how much power and influence Summitt is surrendering.

For instance, "permissible basketball related activities" (exact wording) are broken down as follows:

(A) Practice and competition.

(B) Recruiting.

Under "practice and competition" (again, exact wording), Summitt is allowed to "observe practice" but can only "enter the women's basketball locker room during halftime and after games as long as the team and individual players are not instructed."

As for recruiting, she can do pretty much what she wants as long as it's contained to on-campus contact, or within the home of a full-time staff member.

But if you think these restrictions -- however well-intentioned and possibly necessary due to NCAA rules -- are completely embraced by Summitt, consider this quote to the Knoxville media from her concerning her new role:

"I don't know exactly what it's going to be. We have some things we have to talk about."

And that's where you cringe. "We ... have ... some ... things ... we ... have ... to ... talk ... about." How'd you like to be Hart or Warlick or, for that matter, President Obama having to talk to the most knee-weakening stare in sports about "some things"? Yikes.

Of course, you hope Summitt will go gently into the good night, her 38 years at the top of her sport enough to make a difficult transition for all concerned as smooth as possible.

Because whatever they said Wednesday, this whole situation is supremely difficult and awkward and uncertain for everyone, from Summitt to Hart to Warlick to the returning Lady Vols players to everyone who's ever admired Perfect Pat from either close range or afar.

But to see the fog roll over Summitt's once-fiery eyes this past season was to know that this move was also supremely necessary.

So let us briefly return to six weeks ago inside Thompson-Boling Arena, to the final game Summitt would ever orchestrate as head coach, a regular-season-ending triumph over Florida.

Standing on the arena's floor early that evening, longtime women's AD Joan Cronan reflected on the six-plus months that had come and gone since Summitt first disclosed she had dementia.

Cronan said she began the season with three goals: To (1) "protect Pat, the person we love;" (2) "protect her legacy" and "protect the program."

The first two were perfectly practiced throughout Summitt's 38th and final season. Wednesday, Hart rightly decided the time had come to protect the program at least as much as the woman who built it.