Friday, March 23, 2012

Backing Pat Summitt

As the basketball season winds down, there has been much speculation about whether this will be Pat Summitt’s last season as head coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team.

A couple of weeks ago, some members of the media made it sound like a foregone conclusion that she would be stepping down. Summitt recently said that she has not given it much thought, and her immediate goal was to get her team ready to compete for another national championship.

Of course, the reason for this speculation is her health. Prior to the start of the season, she revealed she has been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. Since then, her approach to coaching the team has shifted with her assistant coaches taking additional responsibilities.

Still, coaching a high-level program like Tennessee’s is extremely stressful even if responsibilities get shared more. Because of this, there has been great concern about its impact on her condition. Summitt’s interaction with the media has been greatly reduced so it is difficult to get a close look at her on a day-to-day basis.

The season itself has been something of a rollercoaster. After starting strong, her team wavered and was, at times, frustratingly inconsistent. The team uncharacteristically lost eight games during the regular season before getting it together and winning the Southeastern Conference tournament.

This inconsistency led many to speculate whether this new approach was good for the program. What it really demonstrated was just how high Summitt has set the level of excellence.

As I write this, the team is 26-8, which is a record that many programs would love to have. Despite the inconsistency of the regular season, the team played good enough to earn a number two seed in the NCAA tournament. Considering the circumstances, this should be described as remarkable. However, when a coach wins eight national championships, the expectations of everybody become almost unreasonable and any dip is interpreted as decay.

While there is a lot of interest in this situation, Summitt should be the one who gets to call her shot regarding if or when she will step down. The decision should not come from the media or the fans or the university administration. She has contributed too much to the University of Tennessee for this decision to be treated any other way.

Despite the ups and downs of the school (both athletically and academically), Summitt has been a rock. She has been a constant source of integrity. She has been loyal almost to a fault and has influenced a generation of young people (both female and male) in important ways.

When it comes to athletics, people like her do not come along every day. In an age where we see new scandals constantly, she has run a program above reproach. Schools like Ohio State, Miami, and USC would kill for a coach who could bring such integrity to their schools.

She has single-handedly built her program out of the dirt. Many people can coach, but not many can be creators in the way she has been. She has been a visionary not only in developing her program at Tennessee but for women’s sports in general.

‘Legend’ is an overused word, but it fits here. She is that. As a graduate from Tennessee and a fan of her program, my primary concern is for her health. For all she has accomplished, I would hate to watch her take any unnecessary risks.

She has earned the right to go out on her terms. However, I hope those around her are counseling her in a straightforward and unflinching way.

There is no other way when dealing with this situation.

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