However I try to express what Tennessee Volunteers women's basketball coach Pat Summitt means to the game of basketball won't do her justice. Summitt has single-handily engineered a dynasty at UT, brought the amateur sport national recognition as one of its leaders and, in my opinion, is the greatest ambassador for women in sports. If you're looking to quantify her achievements, try her 1,071-199 all-time record.
On Tuesday, CBSsports.com broke the news that Summitt, at age 59, has been diagnosed with dementia. Although she's in the early stages, and although she told GoVolsXtra that "there's not going to be any pity party" for her, she knows that this is the disease that will end her career as a basketball coach.
But where her involvement on the bench will end sooner rather than later, her work with the university likely will not. In a few years down the road, Summitt will be to Tennessee what Dean Smith is to North Carolina -- and in more ways than two of basketball's greatest people.
Last summer it was revealed that Smith, who retired from coaching the Tar Heels after the 1997 season, has short-term memory loss. (I spoke with James Worthy, Antawn Jamison and Phil Ford about it here.) But his condition (Aside: This condition was not around when he stepped down as coach) never stopped him from continuing his work with UNC. Yes, Dean Smith is still employed by UNC. According to UNC's athletic website, Smith works in the athletic director's office as a consultant to the athletic department.
One of the reasons, and this is not the only, that he still has an office is to conveniently be around when a recruit comes for his official visit. Because of his obvious ties to the university, should Smith reach out and speak with a recruit on behalf of UNC and not be employed by it, under one of those arcane rules in the NCAA bylaws it could be considered a violation. (To UNC haters: Please don't look too much into this. It's not worth your time.) Wouldn't it help convince you to come to North Carolina if, when you're strolling down the hallways of the basketball offices, you just happen to run into Dean Smith?
For Tennessee and Summitt, the same will likely happen. Summitt seems to have caught the disease early and the stories linked above show that she does mind exercises nightly to stay sharp and delay the effects of dementia. She won't stay on the court that bears her name much longer, but she'll always have a comfy spot in UT's basketball office once she steps down. Because after all, it's not that she is Tennessee basketball; Tennessee basketball is Pat Summitt. UT will inevitably make a big hire to replace her and keep the tradition going, but I won't be surprised when she's offered a similar, low-paying consultant position in Knoxville. She's earned it and she'll actually do work just like Smith.
It's a continuity thing. UNC men's basketball and UT women's hoops have traditions, and both are fortunate enough to have living legends. Summitt won't be making house calls anymore, but when recruits come to campus, she may just happen to pop her out and say, "Hi, I'm Pat Summitt, and I'm a Volunteer."