Pat Summitt is stepping aside as Tennessee's women's basketball coach and taking the title of "head coach emeritus", the university announced Wednesday, April 18, 2012. Long-time assistant Holly Warlick has been names as Summitt's successor. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

The accolades have been pouring in, deservedly so, for the career of Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt. The 38-year coaching veteran, who could easily be called the best coach in the history of college basketball with her 1,098 wins, 8 national championships and 18 Final Four tournaments, said Wednesday she would be leaving the head coaching job of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team. The decision was not a surprise; Summitt had announced last year that she had early-onset dementia. Since then, all eyes have been on her next move.

What was a surprise, however, is that Summitt is not completely stepping down, but sticking around, albeit in a different role. Her longtime assistant, Holly Warlick, will be the head coach. But Summitt will become “head coach emeritus,” a role that will have her continuing to serve the team, reporting to the university’s athletic director, remaining “involved in on-campus recruiting” and acting as a “personal mentor to players, including life skills coaching,” according to a press release.

Such a set-up isn’t particularly common. That’s because for many leaders, letting go of the reins is just too hard, especially for someone who’s held the job for 38 years. The urge to step in and run the team is too great, no matter what any NCAA rules may say. New coaches understandably want to start with a clean slate. And egos can all too easily get in the way.

For Summitt and the Lady Vols, however, it just may work. For one, Summitt’s unrivaled coaching skills and legacy as the face of women’s basketball mean the inherent risks are worth taking. She is an inspiration to anyone who plays the sport and a leader, in the word’s most basic sense, for a generation of female athletes. To not use her many remaining talents and abilities would be a sad loss in an already somber situation.

Second, the university appears to have been very clear about her job description. When it released its press release announcing the change, it included a PDF titled “Duties & Responsibilities of Head Coach Emeritus,” which has been called a “stark reminder in icy black and white” of the power Summitt is giving up. The document very publicly spells out Summitt’s “permissible basketball-related activities,” which include observing practice, participating in staff meetings and analyzing video. She may enter the locker room after games and during half time, but only “as long as the team and individual players are not instructed.” No hands-on basketball coaching, in other words. The parameters are pretty clear.

Finally, Summitt and Warlick have coached together for 27 years. While it might be difficult for an outside coach to come in and make her mark under Summitt’s long shadow, Warlick is accustomed to it. Not only has she coached by her side; she played for Summitt as a college student.

That’s not to say it will be easy. Any time someone tries to fill the shoes of a leader — not to mention one who is considered to be among the greatest in her field — it’s awkward for the successor, especially if fortunes were to turn and the team gets on a losing streak. Changes are hard enough to make for any new leader, much less when their predecessor is hanging around. In this case, Summitt’s health adds another complicating factor, especially since Alzheimer’s can be such a little-understood and obscure illness.

But if anyone can manage the set-up, it’s Summitt, who has handled the news about her illness with as much elegance and dignity as she has her entire distinguished career. It may be hard for some leaders to have their predecessor around. But when that person is the legend and pioneer that Pat Summitt is, it’s not only worth the risk, but surely offers a welcome sounding board and irreplaceable mentor for Warlick and her players.

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