(CNN) -- Former University of Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt got some unexpected news just before meeting with the media to discuss her retirement Thursday.
President Barack Obama announced that she will be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award handed out by the government.
"I didn't see it coming, but that is a tremendous honor," Summitt said.
Summitt -- who won more games than any other collegiate coach in any sport -- retired eight months after revealing her diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer's.
Her announcement marked the end of a storied career that began at the university 38 years ago, when she agreed to coach the team for just $250 a month.
"Coach Summitt is an inspiration -- both as the all-time winningest NCAA coach, and as someone who is willing to speak so openly and courageously about her battle with Alzheimer's," Obama said. "Pat's gift has always been her ability to push those around her to new heights, and over the last 38 years, her unique approach has resulted in both unparalleled success on the court and unrivaled loyalty from those who know her and those whose lives she has touched."
Summitt, who led the Lady Vols to eight national championships and whose 1,098 wins are the most in major-college basketball history, will remain involved in mentoring players and recruiting as the team's head coach emeritus.
Associate head coach Holly Warlick, an assistant on the team's staff for 27 seasons, has been named Summitt's successor.
At Thursday's news conference, Summitt passed her whistle to Warlick.
"No one else has accomplished what Pat Summitt has accomplished in basketball," Athletic Director Dave Hart said. "There will never be another Pat Summitt."
"I just felt like it was the time to step down," Summitt said. "It's never a good time, but you have to find a time you think is the right time."
She asked students to support the team and new coach Warlick.
Under her leadership, Tennessee has been the only school to appear in all 32 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournaments since the tournament's inception in 1982, the university said. The Lady Vols have earned a No. 1 seed in the tournament 21 times.
During the 2011-2012 season, Sports Illustrated named Summitt as Sportswoman of the Year, and the NCAA gave her the NCAA President's Gerald R. Ford Award for her leadership in intercollegiate athletics.
Summit is "a legend by any definition," said Jimmy G. Cheek, chancellor of the University of Tennessee.