KNOXVILLE — With all but five of his players forced to skip last weekend’s AAU state basketball tournament semifinal in Chattanooga due to ACT testing conflicts, Tennessee Fury 17-under girls’ coach Tyler Summitt knew he was in for a struggle.
Then again, as Tennessee Lady Vols coaching legend Pat Summitt has long taught her only child, “Academics comes first,” so there would be no complaining about his empty bench.
But then one of the final five compounded Tyler’s plight by showing up late for warm-ups, definitely a Summitt family no-no. Or as Tyler said, “We have a policy that if you’re late you don’t start. You might not even play.”
Still, this was a state semifinal. For most coaches, risking victory for values would be too big a gamble.
But young Summitt isn’t most coaches. He thought of his mother, of the unbending principles she’s practiced the past 38 years in winning eight national championships and 1,098 games while graduating all 161 players who have completed their eligibility under her watch.
So what would Mom do?
“She’s always said, ‘Discipline first,’” he said with a grin. “She says you start with high standards and keep them. So I started four instead of five.”
Just in case you’re wondering why President Barack Obama awarded Tyler’s mom the Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor — on Thursday, there’s reason No. 1. No one on the planet has higher standards than Tyler’s 59-year-old mother.
“Coach Summitt is an inspiration — both as the all-time winningest NCAA coach, and as someone who is willing to speak so openly and courageously about her battle with Alzheimer’s,” Obama said in referring to the disease Summitt has publicly battled since last August.
“Pat’s gift has always been her ability to push those around her to new heights. ... Her unique approach has resulted in both unparalleled success on the court and unrivaled loyalty from those who know her and those whose lives she has touched.”
A lot of those she’s touched showed up at Thursday’s news conference to watch UT athletic director Dave Hart officially pass Summitt’s coaching whistle to longtime assistant Holly Warlick, a former UT All-American.
In perhaps the most touching moment of a sweetly sentimental afternoon, Summitt hung her coaching whistle around Warlick’s neck before the two shared a long embrace.
“Pat just gave me her blessing,” said Warlick, whose No. 22 jersey was the first ever hung from the Thompson-Boling rafters for either a men’s or women’s player. “Now I have to make sure I use this whistle to the best of my abilities.”
At least one departing senior who watched Warlick attempt to coach the Lady Vols unofficially this past season believes Warlick’s abilities are championship quality.
“There’s going to be a lot more clarity,” Glory Johnson said. “Won’t have to listen to three or four different coaches. There will be a lot less confusion. It’s Holly’s team now. There’s just going to be one voice in the huddle.”
But that’s best left for November, when the Lady Vols will take the court for the first time in 39 years without Summitt to guide them.
For at least one last time, UT Lady Vols basketball, if not UT athletics in general, gathered together to honor its Hall of Fame coach and citizen.
Said Big Orange football coach Derek Dooley: “The word ‘bittersweet,’ I’m sure, is across all of athletics today because she transcends. ... Her impact will last forever — not just on the people she coached, but all the people in athletics as a whole.”
In other words, you could say that the late Dick Clark was the Pat Summitt of television hosts and everyone would immediately understand.
There was this from Johnson, recalling an early practice her freshman year.
“Alicia [Manning] just wouldn’t wait for a screen,” the Knoxville native recalled. “Finally, Pat couldn’t take it anymore. She stopped everything and said, ‘Alicia, if I sent you to the grocery for orange juice, I’m convinced you’d come back with milk.’ We didn’t know what to do. Then Pat laughed and we all laughed.”
UT softball coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly will never forget the day they were hired away from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
“We were in Hawaii,” Karen recalled, “and about an hour after the offer came, Pat called to welcome us to UT and tell us to call her any time we needed help with anything. I remember calling her at 12:30 one morning to ask for advice about a player we were having issues with, and she couldn’t have been more helpful.”
Said Ralph: “I’ve coached in two Olympics, and nothing in my professional life has been as big as knowing her.”
Added Karen: “He still stutters in her presence.”
Tyler Summitt didn’t stutter in starting just four players last weekend. He didn’t lose, either, the Fury eventually winning the tournament. No wonder Marquette hired him as a full-time assistant’s position on the Golden Eagles women’s team this week.
“Her passion has become my passion,” he said.
Both her passion and her principles, it would seem.
Said Hart with a smile as he addressed the next generation of Summitt genius: “Now all you have to do is post 1,099 wins and you’ll blow past your mother.”
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...