KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Pat Summitt was relaxed, smiling and even cracking jokes – looking and sounding totally at peace knowing she will never coach her beloved Tennessee Lady Vols again.
The Hall of Fame coach who just eight months ago revealed she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, has turned the program over to longtime assistant Holly Warlick.
“It was really a great ride for me,” Summitt said Thursday, speaking on the Tennessee basketball court named after her before a crowd of about 200 fans, faculty and friends.
“I just felt like it was time for me to step down knowing that Holly was going to be in great hands,” Summitt said. “She’s a great coach and you know I’m going to continue to support her. You know It’s never a good time, but you have to find the time that you think is the right time and that is now.”
She will become Tennessee’s new “head coach emeritus” with the school paying her the $1 million bonus she had been due once she coached her 40th season.
There were season-long questions about Summitt’s health, but the mood at the news conference was upbeat.
Summitt, who turns 60 in June, joked how coming to work every day in her new role and staying around students might help keep her young.
“I’m getting ready to turn the big one … yeah 30,” Summitt said, after which someone from the crowd chimed in. “Hardly!”
Summitt won more games than anyone else in NCAA college basketball during her 38 years at Tennessee.
And while the ride on the coaching carousel might be over for her, but there are more challenges and honors ahead.
The White House says later this year Summitt will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
President Obama said Summitt is an “inspiration” as the coach who has won more games than anyone else in NCAA college basketball history and for her willingness to “speak so openly and courageously about her battle with Alzheimer’s.”
In her new role at Tennessee, Summitt will report to athletic director Dave Hart.
“I made a choice early in my career to challenge myself to step up my game each and every day,” Summitt said. “You can be sure I will take this same attitude into my new role as head coach emeritus and continue to teach our players the same commitment. I can promise you ladies I’m here for you. Trust me that that will happen.”
She capped her opening remarks by calling Warlick, her former player and assistant the past 27 years, over and handing over her whistle. Summitt said it was time, as she hugged Warlick with the crowd giving them a standing ovation.
“I know this works because I’ve heard it a lot of times,” Warlick said, referring to the whistle.