The news that Pat Summitt is dealing with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease was heart-breaking to anyone who loves college sports. The leader of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team, Summitt has won more games than any coach in college basketball history. The numbers are staggering: 1,037 victories over the course of her career versus 196 losses, 18 Final Fours, and eight national championships, reports the Post’s Sally Jenkins, who is also Summitt’s friend. She has been called a “genius in [her] own time,” “an indomitable presence,” and one of America’s best leaders. She is considered one of the primary reasons that women’s college sports as a whole have the increasingly respected position they have today.
But of all the leadership accomplishments she’s achieved, whether they are unparalleled performance on the court or cultural shifts benefitting women’s sports at large, the one she may have gotten the least attention for is the coaching team she’s built. As Jenkins wrote Tuesday, “Summitt has constructed a stable, deeply experienced staff”- including assistant coaches Holly Warlick, who has coached by Summitt’s side for 26 seasons; Mickie DeMoss, who has been a head coach at Kentucky and also has 19 years with the team; and Dean Lockwood, another former head coach who has been on Summitt’s coaching staff for seven years. He is only the ninth assistant to serve under Summitt in her 37 years in the job.
This would matter most if Summitt was choosing--as many would expect--to step down from the job. But given her condition, it matters almost as much now that we know Summitt is staying on as head coach. She will need the able experience and reputations of her staff to back up a decision many more would find controversial--that is, if her backup plan wasn’t so sound.
Summitt says she will be giving her coaching staff more responsibilities--even going so far as to let them call the plays in the game, while she focuses on motivating and teaching. That won’t be something altogether new for them. As assistant coach Lockwood put it, “One of Pat’s strengths is that she’s done a great job in giving people autonomy and leadership in key areas, and I think to be frank, at this moment, this is probably one of the greatest insurance things she’s done, and one of the signs of her [leadership]. … there are certain areas where she will delegate and you don’t feel her looking over your shoulder, you feel this obligation and you don’t want to screw up because she’s given you so much freedom.”
How well the division of responsibilities will work in practice remains to be seen. It is hard for leaders to let go of the reins, even if they’re Pat Summitt and have been good at delegating in the past. When the Lady Vols do lose, critics are sure to question whether Summitt’s holding onto the job is having an impact. And there will come a time, most likely, when decisions will have to be made about how much longer Summitt can coach.
Fortunately, it appears that when that day does come, the women’s basketball team at the University of Tennessee will be in good hands. And that achievement should be put right up there with the thousand wins and the repeat Final Fours. It is hard for many leaders to look beyond their own record when in fact, their biggest legacy is the team and the leadership they leave behind.