STANFORD, Calif. — Tennessee's back-to-back road trips from New York to California have played out like a farewell tour. Tonight's game at Stanford shouldn't be any different.
At every venue, opposing fans have gathered with the impassioned anticipation that they're saying goodbye to the greatest coach in the history of women's basketball.
The response has been heartfelt but presumptuous.
When Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt announced she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, she said she planned to continue coaching. She didn't say for how long.
You might have assumed one season would be all she could manage, given the scary scenarios this disease engenders. But there are too many variables to pinpoint a departure date for UT's celebrated coach.
She loves what she's doing. And she has the discipline and competitive drive to do whatever it takes to continue. So who's to say she can't coach beyond one season?
Her situation is open-ended. The status of her assistants shouldn't be.
UT has made a commitment to Summitt in allowing her to continue coaching under these extraordinary circumstances. It needs to make a commitment to her staff.
I've never been a big fan of "coaches in waiting." But in this case, it would be appropriate.
UT should name associate head coach Holly Warlick as its coach in waiting, making it clear that whenever Summitt steps down, her former point guard and longtime assistant would step up.
In fact, the career assistant already has stepped up.
Summitt is the head coach in name only. You were reminded of that Monday when she missed practice for a scheduled medical consultation.
A Lady Vols practice without Summitt might have been unthinkable just a year ago. Now, it's noteworthy, but hardly stunning — though this is the first practice she has missed.
Fans and media have become accustomed to seeing Warlick in a leadership role. It's evident at courtside during games and in the subsequent media sessions.
"I'm the messenger," she said of her new media responsibilities.
The characterization is typical of how she has minimized her role during the sixth-ranked Lady Vols' 7-2 season.
"I'm handling more media responsibilities than I did in the past," she said. "But honestly, I think our assistant coaches (Mickie DeMoss and Dean Lockwood) are really working well together. We're not doing much more than we have been."
See what I mean.
After a harrowing, come-from-behind victory over Rutgers last week, Warlick said, "I feel like I played."
Think she isn't feeling the pressure?
This is her program, too. And Summitt isn't just her boss. She's her dear friend. Warlick doesn't want to let down either the program or Summitt.
She doesn't even have a contract. Neither does DeMoss nor Lockwood.
"I could be fired tomorrow," Warlick said with a laugh.
Wonder what an agent — if she had one — would think of that. When asked, Warlick laughed again.
She has had head-coaching opportunities but only avidly pursued a couple, most recently one at South Carolina.
"There are just a couple of places I would be willing to leave for," she said. "Pat has given me so much responsibility throughout the years, it's just a hard place for me to leave."
She shouldn't have to.
Warlick said none of the assistant coaches have had any discussions with the UT administration, including new athletic director Dave Hart, about their future status.
"Dave's biggest concern is taking care of Pat Summitt," she said. "And I appreciate that. He's done a great job of doing that."
But he needs to take care of the program, too. And the best way to do that would be to designate Warlick as the coach in waiting.