Eight years after Lady Volunteers legend Pat Summitt retired and amidst coronavirus, we look at elite Tennessee Vols coaches who retired due to illnesses.
Honestly, it’s almost a curse to become the best coach in a major Tennessee Vols sport. This weekend will mark the eight-year anniversary of Pat Summitt, the greatest coach in UT history, stepping down due to dementia. It also comes amidst the COVID-19 quarantine.
Taking all that into account, we figured we’d look at the history of elite coaches on Rocky Top who were forced into early retirement due to health reasons. Our research helped us discover that the greatest coach in the school’s three major sports, Tennessee football, Tennessee basketball and Tennessee women’s basketball all retired early due to health reasons.
Summitt is the one everybody remembers. It was a shock when she announced her illness to the world back in 2011, and everybody to this day wonders what the Lady Vols program could have been like had she been able to stay on board.
After all, Summitt, who tragically passed away in 2016, was extremely young for somebody to contract that illness, and the Lady Vols still haven’t recovered. Holly Warlick had to be fired last year, and Kellie Harper is still trying to rebuild the program. It all dates back to that fateful illness that took Summitt’s life.
But beyond the greatest coach in arguably the history of college sports, other Tennessee Vols legends retired early as well. Ray Mears, who was head coach of the men’s basketball program from 1962 to 1977, had to retire at the end of 1977 due to severe depression, which is confirmed in this article on ESPN confirming his death in 2007 and in this 2006 chattanoogan.com article.
Upon his retirement, Mears was coming off the best three-year run in Tennessee basketball history with the Ernie and Bernie show, led by Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld. The Vols had just won an SEC Championship and made back to back NCAA Tournaments, and Mears was only 51 years old. He appeared to have plenty of years left. But his clinical depression was too much.
Before Mears and Summitt, though, Robert Neyland himself had to retire early due to health issues. Neyland had left the Tennessee Vols football program twice, once in 1935 and another time from 1941 to 1945, for active duty service in the military due to his status as an Army officer.
Right as he was called to his second stint, which was obviously due to World War II, Neyland was in the midst of the greatest run in UT football history. Rocky Top won three straight SEC titles, two national titles and went undefeated in all three regular seasons from 1938 to 1940. So his second call was already a bad break for the Vols.
However, Neyland’s final retirement was another bad break. His final year was 1952. He had just won back to back national championships in 1950 and 1951, and the 1951 title was a consensus national title. But like Mears and Summitt would later be, he was forced to retire early due to health issues.
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Neyland’s health problems are not specifically identified, but they are confirmed in this article by ESPN documenting Tennessee football’s 2008 coaching search and in Richard Scott’s book “SEC Football: 75 Years of Pride and Passion,” which came out that year and celebrated the 75th anniversary of the conference. When he retired, he was 59, but he had some years left.
Summitt, Mears and Neyland all have the most wins of any other Tennessee Vols coach in their respective sport. All of them had to retire in their 50s. The immediate aftermath of each program after them had mixed results.
We discussed what happened with Warlick, but she did win three SEC championships the three years after Summitt and then made an Elite Eight before the program really began to deteriorate. Things were okay at first with the program, though.
Mears’ successor, Cliff Wettig, had a losing record in 1977-1978, but Don DeVoe was hired a year later, and he made five straight NCAA Tournaments, including a Sweet 16, and won an SEC Tournament and SEC regular season title in separate years. However, the Vols would then miss the tournament 13 of the next 14 years.
Football had a different story. Neyland became athletic director, and his appointed successor, Harvey Robinson, was fired after going 4-6 in his second year. Bowden Wyatt returned and went 10-1 with an SEC title in 1956, but after that, the program fell apart, and by the early 1960s, Wyatt was gone. However, Doug Dickey came in after that and brought new life to the program.
Regardless of those successes, everybody should wonder how the Tennessee Vols would have performed in those three sports had illnesses not tragically forced their best coaches into early retirement. It’s sad to think about and appears to be a curse on the program.