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Pat Summitt's final season both heartbreaking and awe-inspiring

Pat Summitt is no longer the head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers.

That is going to take some time to sink in. It's unfathomable to think of Tennessee without Summitt.

But everything that's happened in the past eight months surrounding Summitt has been unfathomable.

A coach cut down in her prime. The epitome of strength and fight, weakened and debilitated as her last season wore on.

Summitt, one of the most impactful coaches that sport -- any sport -- has ever seen, announced Wednesday that she is stepping down. She will assume the role of Head Coach Emeritus. Her longtime assistant Holly Warlick, who took on the public role during last season, will become head coach.

Ever since Summitt announced in August that she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's, the season took on the feel of a farewell tour.

This moment became increasingly inevitable, day by heartbreaking day.

The progress of Summitt's disease was undeniable. By December -- just four months after her public declaration -- when her team came to visit Stanford, she was holding onto the press table to steady herself. The dragon lady sideline persona was missing.

And missed.

It's been heart-wrenching to witness, even from afar. I can only imagine the pain suffered by those closest to Summitt -- her assistants, her players, her son, Tyler. We saw a glimpse of it last month, on the night that Tennessee's season ended -- a night that many suspected would be the last for Summitt -- when Warlick broke down in tears in the postgame interview. Her pain was so sharp, it took my breath away.

By then the next announcement was obvious. Summitt would have to step down, for her own health, and also for the program that she loved and created with her own strong hands. There were too many questions, too many distractions, too many tears. It wasn't what anyone wanted.

But Summitt -- who bravely decided to continue coaching despite a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's -- accomplished so much in these last few months. For those who have never been touched by the horrible disease, she put a face on it. She showed the world the devastating effects. We watched her deteriorate, this proud, fierce, compassionate woman who ruled her sport for so many years.

There were moments of love and outreach along the way. Public, like when her bitter rival Geno Auriemma hugged her at the women's Final Four. Private, as when a respected sports journalist asked to thank her for all her access over the years and found himself breaking down in tears, with Summitt comforting him.

Summitt was honored as SI's Sportswoman of the Year in December and in Denver at the Final Four. She is stepping down just weeks before the 40th anniversary of Title IX. She reshaped the athletic hierarchy, becoming the winningest coach -- male or female -- in history. She put an early face on women's athletics, women's strength and determination.

And she put a face on something more this year.

Her legacy was already as rich and deep as any in sport. In the past eight months, she has added a deeper, human layer. Pat Summitt has showed us how to win. How to lose.

And how to fight.

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