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Pat Summitt was always there for me. Now it was my turn.
Following Tuesday's announcement of Pat Summitt's retirement from her position as head coach of the University of Tennessee's Lady Volunteers basketball team, we offer the following tribute, which will appear next month in Guideposts magazine, from one of Summitt's longtime assistant coaches, Mickie DeMoss:
The phone call came out of the blue one spring day in 2010. I wasn’t surprised to hear from Pat Summitt, the legendary University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach and my mentor.
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I’d been one of her assistants for 18 years. We’d worked together until 2003, coaching the Lady Volunteers to six NCAA titles, and we were still good friends. But I was surprised to hear Pat say, “I want you to come back to Tennessee.”
Why now? I’d been away for seven years. When I’d left to run the University of Kentucky women’s basketball program, no one had been more thrilled for me than Pat. And she knew I was happy in my current job as an assistant coach at Texas.
“Come on, Mickie,” Pat said. “Let’s finish out our careers together.”
I couldn’t put my finger on why, but there was something beyond the usual insistence in her voice. It was like having my sister say, “Come home. I need you.”
So I didn’t hesitate. But in the back of my mind I thought, When had Pat ever needed help? She was the toughest, strongest, most capable person I knew. She was the one I leaned on when I went through the hardest struggle in my life—my mother’s long struggle with dementia.
Pat came with me on visits home to Mom in Louisiana. She gave the eulogy at Mom’s memorial service. Pat did so much for me that I sometimes wondered, Lord, how can I repay her? Please don’t ever let me let her down.
The day I arrived back in Knoxville, I drove straight to Pat’s. She said I could stay with her till I found my own place. True to form, she filled me in on the team right away. But she seemed oddly distracted and after 10 minutes, she stood abruptly and left the room.
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She probably had a million things going on, too much even for a champion multitasker like her to keep up with. Maybe that was why she asked me to come back.
One night not long after that, Michelle Marciniak, a star point guard for the Lady Vols in the mid-1990s, called and said she’d be in Knoxville the next day. Could she stay at Pat’s? “Sure,” I heard Pat say. “It’ll be great to see you.”
The next morning at breakfast I mentioned I was looking forward to catching up with Michelle. “She’s coming today?” Pat said. “I didn’t know that.”
“She called last night, around ten,” I reminded her.
“I remember now,” Pat said. But I could tell by her expression she didn’t.
Pat was notorious for being so focused on her work that she’d forget where she put her keys or parked the car. All of us assistants teased her about it. But forget even the smallest detail about one of her players? That wasn’t the Pat I knew.
I felt a flicker of unease. This was how things had started with my mom, these little lapses. Pat’s just overworked, I told myself. Mom was in her late seventies when she showed symptoms of dementia. Pat was only 57. Way too young for Alzheimer’s.
When we first met, back in the early 1980s, Pat was already like Wonder Woman. She had this aura about her. People were drawn to her, both players and coaches.