I'm telling myself that it's all in the preposition. Aside, not down. Pat Summitt will be Tennessee women's basketball coach emeritus -- still there for her players; for her staff; for the fans; for anyone who has come to count on her raising funds and awareness in the fight against dementia.
Ever since she announced, just before this past season, that damned if she wasn't gonna keep on coaching, notwithstanding a diagnosis of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's-type, the world has wondered how she is doing. Can she keep it up? How might it end? Now we know.
But simply in the trying, Summitt struck a blow against Alzheimer's. Yes, she could have spent another season or two on the sidelines, triangulating between her three assistants over here, and a brace of Lady Vols over there. But there was a more responsible decision to be made. This is how her son Tyler -- named to the women's staff at Marquette yesterday, the very day that his mother made her announcement -- put it this afternoon: "This was her decision. My mom's always told me, put the team before yourself. She did what was best for the Lady Vols program."
For many of us at SI there's a personal and immediate overlay to this story. Only a few months ago we welcomed her to Manhattan to honor her as our Sportswoman of the Year. I wrote the story that attempted to do justice to college basketball's all-time winningest coach. Watching Thursday afternoon's news conference in Knoxville, where Summitt not only said her peace but also fielded questions, I couldn't help but think back to the Sportsman/Sportswoman gala in December. True to form, Summitt had vowed that she would stand before the crowd that night and make remarks. And true to form, the people closest to her -- from Tyler, to Tennessee women's AD Joan Cronan, to longtime sports information director Debby Jennings -- let their respect for her overrule their anxiety, knowing that in the end the best course was to be there with her, for her. (No one in attendance that night will soon forget the gallantry of her co-honoree, Mike Krzyzewski, who spoke immediately afterward, amplifying and lifting up her comments, drawing ties between them that will resonate for posterity.)
She did fine then, just as she did fine Thursday. Indeed, she sounded like a woman auditioning for Bartlett's. My favorite moments from Thursday's presser were when Summitt:
• Referred to the career she's now easing out of as "the work you have to do, and the work you love that you have to do."
• Shot a glance over at the current Lady Vols team and said, "I can promise you, ladies, I'm here for you."
• Draped a lanyard with a whistle around the neck of her successor, the elevated assistant Holly Warlick, who said, "I know this works, 'cause I've heard it a lot of times."
• Answered a question about the timing of her exit -- and we can all agree that the timing is driven in large part by the exigencies of recruiting, can't we? -- with this gem: "It's never a good time. But you have to find the time that's the right time. And it is now."
• Came up with the perfect grammatical tense to capture the spirit of this step-aside, not-step-down moment, when she said, "We will have taken a magnificent journey." It's been too long since I sat in English class, but I want to say that's what's called the future imperfect tense. The future imperfect: Isn't that what life throws at us?
She'll sidle into a new role, in which she can continue to lend, with her name, image and example, the power that the fight against Alzheimer's and dementia needs and deserves. Stepping up will be two coaches, each of whom will carry a piece of Pat.
Warlick, the new head coach, is bluff and tough, a Tennessee gal who played for Summitt and will thus embody the essence of the program as fully as it's possible, short of ordering up a blood transfusion.
As for Dean Lockwood, you've got a man to bear witness to what women can do. In Lockwood, a former college head coach who brought additional cred when he migrated over from the Tennessee men's team, Warlick knows she has a male colleague who has never needed an ego stroke.
By Lady Vol standards, this past season was a calvary, marked by glaring deficiencies on the floor, several painful losses at home, and a rout at the hands of Baylor when a visit to the Final Four, in what everyone knew was going to be their coach's last chance, hung in the balance. Warlick's tears after that regional final defeat had an eloquence that no one could miss, least of all Baylor coach and Summitt acolyte Kim Mulkey.
But then this past season always was going to be a journey, as Joan Cronan told me, through "uncharted waters." In the end Summitt gave her players and coaching staff every bit as much as she demanded of them. She gave it her best shot.