Amid uncertainty, honor the success

DES MOINES, Iowa -- We don't know if we just saw the last game on the sidelines for Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt. We are unsure of how to write or talk about this -- it has been that way the past few months -- but now the 2011-12 Lady Vols have finished this season with their legendary mentor.

This particular journey ended with a 77-58 loss to top-seeded Baylor on Monday in the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight in Iowa's capital city, a place that has had a girls' high school state basketball tournament that dates back all the way to 1925. And that somehow seems appropriate, as this felt like a historical game for many reasons.

Since Summitt made the announcement last August that she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, observers have kept an eye on her demeanor and speculated about the future.

For the most part, Summitt has not spoken much to the media other than in gathering in Knoxville, Tenn., with local reporters to talk about the topic of this year's team, not her health. Associate head coach Holly Warlick has handled news conferences, with assistants Mickie DeMoss and Dean Lockwood always available for insight as well.

"Throughout the year, she's always been into the game," an emotional Warlick said after the loss. "That's Pat -- her love for the game, she's not lost that. She's really been in tune with each one of these kids. She hasn't had to really worry about a thousand things and speaking and going places. She's stayed home and focused on these young ladies."

The players, of course, have been asked again and again about Summitt as well, but they don't have a crystal ball, either. They only know that they still saw her every day and heard her voice in practice and during games, places were Summitt's famous presence can still manifest itself. They are grateful for that.

"Absolutely, just to be able to say that you even knew this woman; she's literally a walking legend," Tennessee senior Alicia Manning said. "For us to have a daily relationship with her is an honor. I'm glad I came here when I did, and I was born when I was."

The loyalty to Summitt of both her staff and the Tennessee administration is boundless. You won't find anyone in a position of power in athletics who is more revered and respected both by those for whom she works and those who work for her.

Whenever she has been asked this season about Summitt continuing as head coach, Warlick has given essentially the same answer that she did Sunday before the Elite Eight.

"As a team, we do not address it," Warlick said. "Pat Summitt is going to make a decision for Pat Summitt. Right now, I will tell you that she is going to be back next year."

All that meant was that nothing has been decided, and Warlick would never try to be the one who decides it anyway. She had essentially the same answer Monday. There has been plenty of speculation about what might happen, including the idea of Summitt moving to a head coach emeritus position that would allow her to still have a role with the team.

But none of this has come from Summitt or Tennessee women's athletics director Joan Cronan. Admirably, Tennessee has formed a tight circle around Summitt -- trying to do whatever possible to help her maximize her energy and focus -- but yet has not avoided acknowledging the issue.

It's obvious that all involved have been working their way emotionally through this as it has been happening. Ultimately, it is not a matter of anyone's loyalty, because that has already been proven a thousand times over.

It's about Summitt's health and comfort level in continuing to be on the job. Tennessee women's basketball is Pat Summitt, and those involved should be trusted to help her make the best decision for herself and the program.

What all who follow the sport -- and even those who don't but appreciate grand accomplishment in any endeavor -- know is that we've been fortunate to see one of the greatest sports figures in American history at work.

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey's statement Sunday that there will never be another Pat Summitt is true, because the circumstances in which Summitt became who she is will never occur again. There is a certain pedestal we reserve for the successful pioneers in human history, and the ground that they broke will always belong to them.

Summitt grew up in rural Tennessee, a place where there were no shortcuts from strenuous work, and at a time when there were no athletic scholarships for women in this country. When she graduated from high school in 1970, most schools and colleges nationwide still didn't have organized basketball teams for females. There were virtually no athletic scholarships anywhere for women. The NCAA was not involved in women's sports -- except as a lobbying force against the signing and implementation of Title IX.

Summitt became a head coach in 1974 at age 22. Now 38 years later, the NCAA is a leading advocate for women's athletics and the protection of Title IX. Thousands and thousands of young women -- not just from the United States but other countries, too -- have been educated with the help of athletic scholarships. Summitt has won 1,098 games at Tennessee and lost just 208. She has eight NCAA titles and taken her team to the NCAA Final Four 18 times.

Through all of that, though, she was the most approachable, down-to-earth icon that you could have imagined. The kind of person who treated everyone with respect. Someone who took the time to give thoughtful answers to the questions of young journalists -- who were quaking in their shoes a bit to even be talking to her -- just the same as if they had been seasoned veterans.

I know because I saw it so often over the years -- and because I once was one of those young reporters myself. I will always be grateful that Summitt, with the way she treated us in the media, made us feel this really was a worthwhile and important profession.

Summitt understood with every interaction she had with people of all walks of life that she was being an ambassador for Tennessee, for college athletics, for women's sports, and for basketball. She used her immense personal presence and power to make others feel powerful, not to intimidate them.

Has she been intimidating to her players? Yes, but only in the best way: She has made them stand taller, run faster, battle harder, feel things deeper. In respecting her so much, they all came to respect themselves. There has been no life that Summitt has touched that she didn't make better.

We don't know for sure now what Summitt's future holds in basketball. But we know the past is overflowing with the most profound kind of success.

Monday night and always, that's what we celebrate.