Ten minutes before tipoff Saturday, Tennessee women’s coach Pat Summitt walked onto the court at Wells Fargo Arena and the crowd rose as one.
Kansas coach Bonnie Hendrickson gave Summitt a hug while the fans from four schools gave her a standing ovation.
Summitt took a seat between assistant coaches Holly Warlick and Mickie DeMoss. But not for long. When the Vols fell behind Kansas early in Saturday’s NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game, Summitt stalked the sidelines shouted instructions, took charge of the huddle during timeouts and sent in substitutions,
Summitt, 59, has taken on a reduced role on a daily basis since she was diagnosed last summer with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s Type.
She moves a little slower than during her run of a record eight national championships during 1987-2008, but on game day, Summitt is still in charge, just as she has been for 1,098 wins after Saturday’s 84-73 victory over Kansas.
“We’ve kind of got this system down,” said Warlick, who oversees the daily supervision of the basketball office and handles most formal pregame and postgame interviews.
“Pat is still the head coach. It’s almost like Pat and I have switched roles. As a team, as a staff, we all work really well together. I’m up (here), but there’s three head coaches sitting behind me. I’m the only one who hasn’t been a head coach. It’s a group effort, and it’s really worked out.”
Warlick is a 27-year veteran of the staff and former Tennessee player; assistant coach Dean Lockwood, in his eighth season with the Volunteers and former men’s head coach at Saginaw Valley (Mich.) State and Northwood (Mich.) University; and DeMoss is a 20-year member of the staff who was head women’s coach at Kentucky for four years.
“Pat has always surrounded herself with very talented people, whether it’s players or staff members,” DeMoss said. “Fortunately, we’re a veteran staff, so we know when to step in and pick up. We know when to step back.
“Dean and Holly and I work well together, nobody is trying to jockey for a position. We feed off each other, we know when somebody needs a little help, we know when to step back … try not to talk over each other. The fact we’ve all been in the game a long time, it’s allowed us to navigate it a little better.”
There’s not much precedent for this situation. When Summitt revealed her illness, she said she wanted to continue to coach, that working would be the best medicine.
“Some days, she’s more involved, more energetic than others,” DeMoss said. “I think she picks and chooses how to expend her energy. She’s been smart about when she does and when she doesn’t.
“At any time, she’s still the boss. At any time, she can tell us to sit down and shut up.”
That’s what happened in a second-round win over DePaul. The Volunteers led 28-23 at halftime, and Summitt wasn’t happy.
“She gave one of her classic Pat pep talks,” Volunteers guard Taber Spani said. “She’s still Pat, she still motivates us like no other. We still look at her as our leader and our coach and have the utmost respect for her.”
No one is sure how much longer Summitt will continue as a part-time head coach or whether her condition is worsening.
“I think she’s doing great, I really do,” DeMoss said. “Considering everything … every coach in the country is getting a little worn down at this time. But she’s got good energy, she’s still doing her puzzles and she reads the newspaper every day. She didn’t do that when she was full-time coaching.
“You give her a challenge, and she meets it head-on. The media stuff sometimes wear on her, and we’re trying to limit what her mental energy is and let her focus on the team.”
That’s how the players like it.
“Definitely, the day-to-day stuff has changed, and it looks a lot different (to the outside),” said Spani, who is from Kansas City. “But coach Summit still has her fingerprints on everything. Her voice is being heard …
“Just for us to see what she goes through on a day-to-day basis, that’s difficult. But her courage, and the way she’s chosen to fight this out has inspired us.”