Wiedmer: If only Pat Summitt could coach forever

Wiedmer: If only Pat Summitt could coach forever

February 27th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sportscolumns

Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt, center, confers with her staff in the first half of an NCAA basketball game against Vanderbilt on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn. From left are associate head coach Holly Warlick, Summitt, and assistant coach Dean Lockwood.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Forty-five minutes from the start of the University of Tennessee's women's basketball game against Florida on Sunday afternoon, the giant G-10 parking deck adjacent to Thompson-Boling Arena was almost full.

Understand, this wasn't Connecticut, or Baylor, or even Vanderbilt the Lady Vols were about to play, bitter rivals all.

This was Florida, which entered this contest in eighth place in the 12-team Southeastern Conference. Beyond that, Kentucky had already beaten Mississippi State earlier in the day to claim the regular-season title, which meant UT wasn't playing for much but pride.

Yet by the time the last of the pre-game fireworks fizzled out, 18,563 Lady Volniacs were in their seats, the largest crowd of the season, close to half of them wearing "We Back Pat" orange T-shirts.

Even the Florida players warmed up in white "We Back Pat" Ts, though the lettering was Gator blue.

Then again, there's only one Pat Summitt, and the overwhelming unspoken belief is that her battle with Alzheimer's will force the Lady Vols' coach of 38 years to call it a career whenever UT's season draws to a close. And given that, this might really have been the last chance to support her on the court that bears her name.

So even before this eventual 75-59 Big Orange victory began, Florida senior guard Jordan Jones had a message for Summitt.

"I just told her that since they announced the news [of her Alzheimer's diagnosis] I have been praying for her and the team every night and that she is an inspiration to everyone," said Jones afterward.

"Every kid grows up, especially in the South, watching Pat Summitt. She is the reason why I am playing basketball. She really got this game started for us ... the opportunities that she created for everyone by making women's basketball what it is today. I don't think we have all the scholarships we have now if it was not for Pat Summitt taking the game to a new level."

And that's the opponent's view. Aretha Franklin couldn't spell R-E-S-P-E-C-T better than that.

So the fans came and the Lady Vols played as they have not often played this season while being forced to watch the coach they love, the coach they came to Tennessee to play for, slowly fade before their eyes.

No wonder UT women's athletics director Joan Cronan said of the six months that have come and gone since Summitt first went public with her illness: "It's been an emotional season for us all."

It's been an emotional time for everyone ever touched by Summitt in ways big or small.

After all, when it comes to the winningest coach in her sport's history (1,092 victories and counting), we all want a miracle.

We want the fog sometimes rolling across those brilliant blue eyes to be be burned off by the fire that once always resided there.

We want to see her glare, her stare and her emotions laid bare by an ill-timed Lady Vols miscue, as if Summitt has ever believed there's an acceptable time to make a mistake.

We want to believe that she's still calling the shots, designing the plays, turning on the tirades whenever warranted to wrest victory from the jaws of defeat.

We want to believe, but the game tapes appear to say otherwise. They seem to show associate coach Holly Warlick owning the clipboard, dominating the timeouts, conducting the post-game press conferences.

Even Cronan admitted that her top three goals when Summitt's fight with Alzheimer's became public were, in order:

1) "To protect Pat, the person that we love."

2) "Protect her legacy."

3) "Protect the program."

All three are fine at the moment. And the hope from every corner is that all three will still be fine this time next year, whether Summitt remains on the sideline or not.

But if not, Sunday was the perfect way for Pat to say good-bye, even if she didn't.

"If she was going to do that, she would let us know," said Glory Johnson, the senior from Knoxville who led the Lady Vols with 21 points and 10 rebounds. "She was just really happy to be here, and we were happy to have her here. Until she says when, we're going to keep being happy."

Or as the Gators' Jones said as she tugged on her "We Back Pat" T-shirt, "We're just trying to show as much support as we can for the greatest coach in women's basketball history."

Because when it comes to Pat, even her foes remain fans at heart.