By Frank Gale
The season is over for the Lady Vols, which most likely will start the “Pat Watch” around Big Orange Country, if not the nation. Judging from the post game reaction after the loss to Baylor, it sure seemed like that might have been the last bench appearance of the legendary coach.
This is a very unique situation and it might just end up having a very different and unique way of playing itself out.
Because of the way this illness is somewhat unpredictable in its advancement, there is nothing standing in the way of Coach Summitt continuing on. She would never hurt this program but would her leaving it do just that?
Pat Summitt even in a limited role is a plus for UT, Lady Vol fans and the student athletes who want to be part of her legacy and the program. Let’s not forget that this team did make it to the doorsteps of the Final Four despite other adverse factors that had nothing to do with Coach Summitt’s situation. They lost two post players before the first ball was tossed to start this season and the injury to Taber Spani hurt this team more than most realize.
The fact this coaching staff functioned so well with all the adversity swirling around the program is a testament to their skills, plus a devotion to both Pat and the program. That is the reason that Pat doesn’t have to step aside if she wants to continue. This team probably would not have made the Final Four even with a healthy Coach Summitt. Baylor has that special player just like Tennessee had with Candice Parker when they were permanent residents in the Final Four.
Baylor will be the odds-on choice to win the national championship and when the Lady Vols reflect on the totality of this season, they will realize that they were part of something very unique and special this season. Not many teams would have been able to cut down the nets in their tournament championship under similar circumstances.
The travel and the night games certainly have taken a physical toll on Coach Summitt as she battles this horrible disease, but is walking away from active coaching best for her or the program? Coach Summitt has earned the right to do this her way and no one outside of those closest to this situation should try and hasten her exit.
The fan base for the Lady Vols is second to none and they came because of what Pat Summitt built from the ground up. The recruiting class has held together and those recruits are coming to Rocky Top for all the right reasons.
This off season, Pat, her coaches and the medical professionals will evaluate where things are and what if any progression has occurred over this past year. The fact she was involved all season most likely kept the advancement of this disease to a minimum. I can think of a lot of things that would be a detriment to the Lady Vols program and having the “Legend” return for another year is not one of them. Go Lady Vols!
(Frank Gale is a Chronicle correspondent and his column appears regularly.)