Nearly emotionless, Pat Summitt sat on the bench.
The legendary Tennessee women’s basketball coach known for stalking the sidelines and delivering bone-chilling stares appeared to be merely an observer. With her legs crossed and arms folded, Summitt watched as her Lady Vols suffered a disappointing 93-79 road loss to Vanderbilt on Feb. 9.
Afterward associate head coach Holly Warlick was asked the tough — albeit fair — question: Was this Summitt’s last game at Memorial Gymnasium as UT’s head coach?
“I don’t think so. Pat is coaching. She is still coaching, and she is going to continue to coach,” Warlick said. “I hope it is not the last time, and I have not heard that it is or isn’t. She is still the head coach of this basketball team.”
But for how long?
This weekend Summitt brings the 10th-ranked Lady Vols into Nashville for the SEC Tournament, which begins Thursday at Bridgestone Arena.
It is not improbable that it could be her last trip to the Music City in her current capacity. Six months after publicly announcing she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, the future is uncertain for the 59-year-old.
After 38 years, eight national championships and 1,091 wins, Summitt has earned the right to leave on her own terms.
“This year she has shown more courage than I’ve ever known,” UT women’s athletic director Joan Cronan said. “What she has been able to do, to take this straight-on is absolutely unbelievable. It has taken a village. I can’t say enough about the assistant coaches and the staff working well as a team.”
The assistant coaching trio of Warlick, Dean Lockwood and Mickie DeMoss — 93 years of college coaching between them — shoulder more of the in-game coaching duties and media obligations. Trimming her responsibilities, Summitt is also in the office less.
“She is involved to the level that she wants to be involved, and she still has a stronghold on this basketball team,” Warlick said.
As for her body language on the bench, Warlick and ESPN women’s basketball analyst Kara Lawson warn against reading too much into it. Lawson knows all too well Summitt’s characteristics and tendencies after spending four years as a UT point guard from 1999-2003. She argues against any inference that Summitt isn’t in control.
“To me, that is lazy analysis,” Lawson said. “Much like 10, 15 years ago, when the camera would go on her and she would be angry with a player. She would be yelling at somebody. Everybody made the assumption that she was like that all the time, that she was yelling all the time. That wasn’t the case. She was very intense on the court, but off the court she was much different.
“I think everybody is kind of looking and anticipating, trying to find something that’s different. The reality of the situation, in my opinion, is that this year is different than any other year — as we expected it to be.”
Whenever Summitt retires, Tennessee administrators will be faced with the daunting task of replacing the face and foundation of UT women’s basketball. Fortunately, the opportunities to keep it in the family are numerous.
Currently 74 of Summitt’s former players, assistant coaches, graduate assistants, managers and basketball operation directors serve in the coaching ranks — professionally, collegiately or at the prep level. Forty-six, including Warlick, are former players.
Nikki Caldwell is in her first year as LSU’s head coach after three successful seasons guiding UCLA. Niya Butts (Arizona) and Kellie Jolly Harper (North Carolina State) are less than four years in at high-profile programs.
An even bigger name, Sylvia Hatchell, served as a graduate assistant at UT in 1974 — Summitt’s first year at the helm. Hatchell has built a legacy of her own at North Carolina, accumulating more than 600 victories in 26 seasons.
“I think every coach works hard, but I think Pat has probably instilled the value of work ethic and making sure that you try to get the most out of your players,” Warlick said. “I think these coaches understand the importance of how you treat kids off the court as well. I’m not going to sit out there and act like Pat. She has her own identity. My core values are the same as Pat’s. ... That is something she instilled in me.”
Of course, viable candidates for Summitt’s successor can be found on her current staff.
Lockwood is in the eighth year of his second stint at Tennessee and was a head coach at two Division II schools in Michigan for 12 years. DeMoss is in the second year of her second go-around with the Lady Vols. She was a head coach at Kentucky from 2003-07.
In 30 years, Warlick has never headed up a program but has spent the past 27 years at Summitt’s side. The former Lady Vols point guard, who is enshrined in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, was promoted to associate head coach in 2003-04.
She appears to be well-groomed for a head coaching job — perhaps at UT. Right now, though, the Lady Vols aren’t searching for one.
“My goal has always been to be a head coach,” Warlick said. “I’ve had opportunities to go to places and just didn’t like the fit. ... Pat is still the head coach, so I am not really entertaining that idea [of replacing her] until she no longer is here. I’m just continuing to make this program the best it can be and try to carry it on under Pat’s leadership.”