The 2012 Southeastern Conference women's basketball tournament will have one winner and at least two farewells.
Mississippi State's Sharon Fanning-Otis will be coaching in her 25th and final SEC tournament Thursday afternoon when her 10th-seeded Lady Bulldogs face seventh-seeded Vanderbilt in Nashville. That game will follow the opening matchup between eighth-seeded Florida and ninth-seeded Auburn, which is playing for the final time under eighth-year coach Nell Fortner.
Fanning-Otis's 25-year run in the league is topped only by Tennessee's Pat Summitt and Georgia's Andy Landers, who have been around for the 32 previous SEC tournaments.
"You have to try to stay focused, but it is difficult," Fanning-Otis said. "It has been a distraction this past week for everyone. We're trying to pull it together and give it the best possible effort."
Of course, the elephant in Bridgestone Arena will be whether this is the final SEC tournament for the legendary Summitt, who is battling early-onset dementia.
The coaching career for Fanning-Otis spans 37 seasons and began after she graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 1975. She spent the 1975-76 season as a UT assistant under Summitt and then returned to coach the Lady Mocs.
She guided UTC to a 193-131 record in 11 seasons, leading the Lady Mocs to five consecutive Southern Conference titles from 1982 to '86, before taking her first SEC job with Kentucky in 1987. In eight years with the Wildcats, Fanning-Otis was 134-97, and she has gone 281-231 at Mississippi State.
She will tote 608 career wins to Nashville and zero regrets.
"We always challenge our student-athletes that as you choose a major and go into your profession, have a passion for it," she said. "I could not have been more blessed to be in it for this long at this level and with the successes that we've had and the challenges with which we've had to persevere."
MSU was far and away the league's most miserable program -- four straight years without winning an SEC game during the 1980s -- when Fanning-Otis took over in 1995. She took the Lady Bulldogs to the WNIT in her third year and to their first NCAA tournament in her fourth. She has led them to four 20-win seasons and six NCAA appearances, reaching the Sweet 16 two years ago.
"We're going to miss her," said Summitt, whose Lady Vols meet the MSU-Vanderbilt winner Friday. "She does it the right way, and I have a lot of respect for her."
When she coached the Lady Mocs, Fanning-Otis also coordinated women's athletics. She will remain in athletics at MSU by serving in a fundraising role for the Bulldog Club.
Matthew Mitchell, who guided Kentucky to the regular-season title and the top seed in the tournament, is a 1995 MSU graduate who learned from Fanning-Otis while getting his career started in Mississippi high schools.
"Coach Fanning-Otis has spent so much time with me, helping me develop as a coach," he said.
Thursday also could be the final game for MSU 6-foot-3 senior Danielle Rector, who had 2,900 career points at Tennessee Temple. She has averaged just 4.4 minutes and 0.8 points this year, but she played her last two seasons after surgery to remove nearly half of her left lung.
"It's been a challenge for her to get back on the conditioning side of things like she wants to," Fanning-Otis said. "She's going to be a coach, and I'm so proud of that. She is such a quality, quality young lady, and I'm just so proud of her for sticking with things and continuing to lead the way she has."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...