Fans gather at Summitt's statue to honor Lady Vols coach
Flowers lay alongside a basketball fans have left at the Pat Summitt statue Tuesday, June 28, 2016, in Knoxville, Tenn. Summitt, the winningest coach in Division I college basketball history who uplifted the women's game from obscurity to national prominence during her career at Tennessee, died Tuesday morning, June 28, 2016. She was 64.(AP Photo/Wade Payne)
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The dozens of floral arrangements surrounding Pat Summitt's statue showed the respect for the coach and the love she received around Tennessee's campus.
Summitt died Tuesday morning at the age of 64, five years after announcing she had early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, a disease that prematurely ended a women's basketball coaching career in which she led the Lady Volunteers to eight national titles and won a Division I-record 1,098 games. The news created a somber atmosphere on Tennessee's campus as fans gathered at Pat Summitt Plaza, the home of a statue of the coach standing and smiling rather than wearing her trademark glare.
Amy Palmer of Knoxville said ''it's like we've lost a family member'' after joining the dozens of fans who signed a ''We (Heart) Pat'' sign that was taped to the wall behind Summitt's statue.
''It's very solemn,'' Palmer said. ''There's just a hush. There's a different air. I think it will always be that way. It will never be the same, ever.''
Over the course of the day, hundreds of fans visited the plaza featuring the 8-foot, 7-inch bronze statue of Summitt, which reflects the steely resolve she showed in building the Tennessee women's basketball program and leading the fight against Alzheimer's disease. Notes, balloons and even a couple of basketballs were placed alongside flowers at the foot of the statue.
''It's amazing when I came in, how many people were here honoring her at the statue,'' said Tennessee women's basketball coach Holly Warlick, who played for Summitt and worked as an assistant on her staff for 27 seasons before replacing her. ''They're not basketball players. They're just normal people wanting to pay their respects. … What a great tribute for her.''
Sandy Sutton of Louisville, Tennessee, picked some Easter lilies from her yard and left them at the feet of Summitt's statue. She noted the flowers were ''just like Pat – homegrown,'' a nod to the coach's status as a Tennessee native.
''I'm probably going to cry all day today,'' Sutton said. ''She was an outstanding Tennessean. Everything about her just brought inspiration to all of us.''
''Tennessee Waltz'' was played at campus landmark Ayres Hall at 8 p.m. in honor of Summitt's eight national titles.
As fans gathered in the plaza, numerous school officials gave emotional press conferences while offering their memories of Summitt across the street at the campus studio. Warlick and athletic director Dave Hart choked up on multiple occasions as they discussed what Summitt had meant to them.
''No other coach has ever impacted a sport the way she impacted women's basketball,'' Hart said.
People around campus said Summitt's loss was evident as soon as the news came out that she had died.
''She's a part of all of us, from the custodian (to) the teachers, the professors and the kids,'' said Samuel Henry, a Knoxville custodial worker who used to shine the floors of the Thompson-Boling Arena basketball court that bears Summitt's name.
Joan Cronan, Tennessee women's athletic director for much of Summitt's tenure, got the news early Tuesday morning and immediately planned to leave her home and head to where the coach had been staying. Then she realized she hadn't made her bed yet.
''Pat always taught discipline,'' Cronan said. ''I remember at the first day of camp, she would ask all the campers, `Did you make your bed this morning?' Guess who went back and made their bed this morning. I did.''
The mourning around town wasn't restricted to Tennessee's campus.
Knoxville mayor Madeline Rogero announced on Twitter that the lights on the Henley Bridge in downtown Knoxville would be switched to the Lady Vols' colors of orange, white and blue ''in remembrance of coach Summitt's deep devotion to Knoxville.''
Dana Hart, the president of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, said the facility had about six times more visitors than they get on a typical summer Tuesday. Summitt played a major role in bringing the Hall of Fame to Knoxville.
''We always say without Pat Summitt, the Hall of Fame wouldn't be here and there may not even have been a Hall of Fame,'' Dana Hart said.