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We Back Pat

In The Final Season, Maria Cornelius recounts the farewell tour of legendary coach Pat Summitt

Pat Summitt, Tennessee’s legendary women’s basketball coach, announced in 2011 that she had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. She made it clear from the start that she intended to fight the disease and didn’t want “a pity party.” But nothing she said could stop the expressions of respect and adoration that inundated her until her death in 2016. Summitt remained head coach of the Volunteers for a year after her diagnosis (against the recommendation of her neurologist), a season that became a farewell tour, allowing her countless admirers—fans, former players, opposing coaches, celebrities, politicians—to express their esteem before she drifted, all too soon, behind the veil of dementia. Maria Cornelius, who covered the Lady Vols for InsideTennessee, has captured the emotional journey of that year in The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt, a book that adds to the coach’s enduring legacy.

maria-1Two of the most moving tributes to Summitt come from her most illustrious alumnae. Candace Parker, two-time national player of the year, contributes a foreword to The Final Season that credits her former coach with lessons that extend far beyond the hardwood. “Live in the moment,” Summitt taught her. “Control what you can, and do not spend time worrying about what you can’t.” Another former All-American, Chamique Holdsclaw, compiled letters of gratitude from players and bound them into a book. Twenty former Lady Vols presented the book of memories to Summitt before a home game, a gesture that moved the notoriously impassive coach to tears. Similar outpourings of affection occurred throughout the season, and Summitt accepted each with warmth and affection.

Not every chapter of The Final Season conveys such beneficent ambience. Cornelius takes to heart Flaubert’s maxim that the biography of a friend should be an act of revenge against the subject’s enemies. She delivers scathing judgments of coaches who tried to use Summitt’s illness to lure recruits away from Tennessee, but her harshest criticism is for journalists who exaggerated the symptoms of Summitt’s condition and photographers who hoped to catch the coach drifting away from the action on court. “Television cameras seemed determined to stay on Summitt if she in any way looked as if she were not occupied with the game,” Cornelius writes. “It was an inherently unfair and inaccurate portrayal.”

When Summitt announced that she would coach another year—a decision fully supported by the university administration and athletic department—the theme for the season became “take care of Pat.” “The highest priority” was to “take care of Pat who has taken care of this program and taken care of us for so long,” assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. Opposing teams honored her by wearing “We Back Pat” t-shirts and raised money for Alzheimer’s awareness and research. Even officials, for decades the victims of Summitt’s harrowing stare, made exceptions, turning a blind eye when Tennessee violated the rule against two bench coaches standing at the same time.

Cornelius makes it clear that, though Summitt’s personality remained intact, her mind was slipping during that final season. After games, when noise and exhaustion would exacerbate dementia symptoms, she delegated media obligations to her assistants. When the action on court sped up, she struggled to follow the countless tactical variables—once the hallmark of her coaching—and relied on Holly Warlick, the associate head coach, to call plays and make substitutions. Still, she retained her deadpan sense of humor (she conveniently blamed dementia when she wanted to forget tough losses) and trademark self-deprecation. “I may be old as dirt,” Summitt told reporters, “but I am still trying to win ball games.”

The experience of competing in the SEC during Summitt’s farewell season required players to think for themselves. Her coaching staff had to figure out the new distribution of responsibilities on the fly and under the glare of media coverage. The assistants, Cornelius writes, “knew every step would be scrutinized. They also knew one other thing: there was no road map for how to proceed.” With so many voices shouting instructions, the lines of communications became crossed. “It was like we had three head coaches,” one player said. “That got difficult at times.” As the season wore on, team leaders became more vocal, sensing that, in the absence of Summitt’s guiding hand, they had to find the right path for themselves.

Fans of the Lady Vols will appreciate this inside look of a memorable season when the won-loss record faded in significance to saying farewell to a coach who did more for women’s basketball than anyone in the history of the game. The book offers a profile of Summitt’s resilience when faced with her biggest challenge. She didn’t want our pity, but she earned universal respect and, when it was time for her to bow out, she accepted the public’s homage with the same grace and humility that characterized her entire career.