Pat Summitt's impact on her sport can be measured in coaches as well as championships. The list of coaches with UT ties numbered 74 to start the season. That included 46 former players, 16 former graduate assistants, six assistant coaches, three managers and three basketball operations directors who are or have coached at the college, professional or high school level.
But it was obvious at the conference's media day that coaches didn't have to play or work for Summitt to connect with her.
Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb repeated a story she has told often about how Summitt congratulated her when Balcomb's Xavier team upset the Lady Vols in the NCAA tournament. Ole Miss coach Renee Ladner recalled how Summitt offered her encouragement after a loss.
"I always felt that she was for me — except when we play Tennessee," Ladner said. "I think she feels that way about all of us."
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell, who worked Summitt's summer camps before he became her graduate assistant, rarely talks about Summitt without expressing his gratitude and bewilderment that she didn't fire him from his camp job when he was late for a session.
I asked Summitt about that at the end of the day.
"If you're late, you're fired," she said in repeating her camp edict. "But I didn't fire him.
"We all make mistakes. So I chewed his butt out and said don't let it happen again. You give people second chances, and he took advantage of it.
"I like Matthew."
SEC basketball holds its media day in October in the middle of football season, which means it's usually ill-timed and misplaced.
Pat Summitt - A season of courage
View a special section that highlights Pat Summitt's 2012 season - the season in which she made public her diagnosis of early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. View section »
But this October was different because of Pat Summitt, whose very public battle with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, already had become a national story. She would command more attention than even Kentucky coach John Calipari.
I hadn't seen her since the SEC spring meetings in early June, more than two weeks before she announced her medical diagnosis. So I didn't know what to expect. Neither did anyone else.
The uncertainty reminded me of Lindsey Nelson's induction into the baseball hall of fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., more than 20 years earlier.
Nelson was my all-time favorite broadcaster, but I didn't meet him until I moved to Knoxville in the late 1980s. By then, he had Parkinson's disease.
Although he had been weakened by the disease, I never thought of him as ill when visiting him in an assisted living center. The voice was memorable, and the memory of the events he broadcast almost photographic. Still, I was concerned how he would handle the challenge of a hall-of-fame acceptance speech.
The concern was quickly alleviated when he rose to the occasion in spectacular fashion.
Summitt's media-day challenge wasn't as dramatic. It was a long day, rather than a 20-minute speech, and it could exhaust a healthy coach.
During a casual conversation at the end of the day, Summitt didn't seem fatigued and smiled readily. But it was noticeable that she didn't elaborate as much.
She did fine during her turn on the dais, though. And in a couple of sentences, she made it clear to everyone why she was so intent on continuing to coach.
"I want to go to work," she said with a smile. "That keeps me going."
Something else was obvious. This wouldn't be business as usual. Both associate head coach Holly Warlick and assistant coach Mickie De- Moss accompanied Summitt to Birmingham, Ala. Warlick sat beside her on the dais, often expounding on Summitt's answers.
One media-type seemed troubled by the approach. "That's Pat Summitt up there," he said, implying she didn't need help.
Fans would have a similar reaction throughout the season. They would struggle to reconcile the Summitt who has been subdued by a disease with the one who has been one of the most powerful and vibrant personalities in her sport for almost four decades.
CN Shows Class
No opposing team will ever win over the Thompson-Boling Arena crowd as Carson Newman did. The team bought "We Back Pat" shirts before their Nov. 1 exhibition game and wore them in pregame warm-ups.
After UT's 105-40 victory, Summitt thanked the Carson-Newman team in its locker room. She also signed each player's shirt.
It was a surprising and feel-good start to the season. The postgame media conference was surprising, too, It didn't include Summitt.
I imagined the postgame would be managed the same way as media day, with Summitt and an assistant coach handling the question-and-answer session in tandem. Instead, Summitt and DeMoss teamed up for the postgame radio show, and Warlick did the media conference by herself.
I knew Summitt's role would have to be diminished because of the disease. But I didn't realize how diminished until the first game and postgame.
THROUGH THE GRINER
UT fans are accustomed to seeing the best team and the best player. But it's supposed to be their team and player.
Baylor came to Knoxville with the No. 1 ranking and the game's most dominant player, Brittney Griner. And no one should have been surprised when Griner made the decisive plays down the stretch in a 76-67 victory on Nov. 27.
The coaching contrast was significant, too.
Like Summitt, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey has an unmistakable courtside presence. She usually doesn't wait for the first whistle to introduce herself to the officials.
Summitt hasn't been as relentless and only occasionally as animated as Mulkey. She didn't have to be. She only had to stand, cross her arms and stare. Everybody got the message.
I remember a game in Athens, Ga., that was going the Bulldogs' way until Summitt called timeout and strode onto the court to address an official in full-wrath mode. The Lady Vols got the next call and the one after that. They won going away.
Sally Bell, who now serves as the supervisor of SEC women's basketball officials, first officiated a Summitt game in the 1979-80 season.
"Nothing ever got past her," Bell said at media day. "She had the ability to understand whatever was going on on the floor. And if she had something to say to a referee, you knew you needed to listen. She got her point across but she was very respectful.
"She was the best."
But Summitt couldn't match Mulkey on this day. The disease wouldn't let her.
Mulkey has a connection with Summitt that goes back to her playing days. She's forever indebted to Summitt for selecting her to the 1984 U.S. Olympic team.
Six weeks before the Olympics, Mulkey fractured a foot. But Summitt kept her on the team and assured her she would have time to rehabilitate the injury.
"It took me three weeks and I was back to full speed," Mulkey said at a media conference before her Baylor team played the Lady Vols 20 years later in an NCAA regional. "I won't ever forget that."
After Baylor's victory in Knoxville, Mulkey talked about a conversation she had with Summitt several weeks after the coach announced her medical diagnosis.
"I just said a few things," she told the media. "The bottom line is I wanted her to understand how much I love her."
Mulkey obviously identifies with Summitt. Both were star players who became successful. Both had to overcome an injury to play in the Olympics. Both are married and divorced with a son.
Given the similarities and Baylor's current success, I wondered how long it would be before a UT fan emailed me, recommending Mulkey as Summitt's successor.
Billie Moore knows Lady Vols basketball as well as anyone.
The former UCLA women's basketball coach hasn't just followed the Lady Vols. She has studied them as a favor to Summitt, a longtime friend whom Moore once coached on the U.S. Olympic team.
Moore, who lives in the Los Angeles area, frequently visited Knoxville during basketball season. She analyzed Tennessee videotape and conferred with Summitt game after game, season after season. She gave the program an extra set of trained eyes, which sometimes saw things that others couldn't.
"I first noticed a change when these seniors were freshmen (three years ago), Moore said, as she watched the Lady Vols practice the day before their game at UCLA on Dec. 17.
Whatever strategy an opponent implemented, Moore instinctively anticipated an immediate countermove by Summitt. She was puzzled when Summitt didn't respond accordingly.
"I just had a gut feeling something was wrong," Moore said.
Summitt's competitiveness was one of the reasons Moore believed she would make an outstanding coach. Her commitment was another reason.
Summitt sought Moore's advice when she was making a comeback from knee surgery and trying to make the U.S. Olympic team.
"I told her she needed to lose 10 or 15 pounds," Moore said. "She lost 25."
Summitt's latest medical challenge is more severe, but her self-discipline has again served her well. Once Summitt received a diagnosis, she came up with a plan, which has included a daily regimen of physical and mental exercise as well as medication.
"She has a plan," Moore said. "She believes if she follows that plan, she will be OK."
Summitt's December travel would have been daunting for someone in the best of health.
She was honored as the Sports Illustrated Sportswoman of the Year in New York the first week in December. A few days later, she returned to the city with her team for a two-game road trip.
The Lady Vols played DePaul in Madison Square Garden on a Sunday afternoon, and two days later at Rutgers. The next day after their return trip home, they headed to California for games with UCLA, and Stanford three days later.
It was East to West, cold to warm, Southern to Northern California — four games, three against nationally ranked teams. And you couldn't have planned for the challenges that travel might present.
The Lady Vols were on their last leg of the trip when Summitt didn't show up for a morning practice at Stanford.
Afterward, Warlick explained that nothing was wrong. Instead, Summitt had planned to meet with a Stanford doctor for a consultation before she made the trip.
It was the first practice she had missed all season.
The night before the UT-Stanford game, Dan Fleser and I met two journalist friends in Berkeley for dinner. They asked about Summitt and the team, and seemed flabbergasted when told she rarely met with the media anymore.
Earlier that day, we had requested an interview with Summitt at the team hotel. Lady Vols publicist Debby Jennings said there would be no "sit-down interviews" with Summitt other than the one Robin Roberts did for "Good Morning America."
We explained that she occasionally talked briefly after practice and wasn't available postgame. Jennings passed on general quotes from Summitt to the media.
My friends looked puzzled — perhaps because, like many fans who followed this story from afar — they had taken Summitt's August announcement more literally when she said she would continue coaching. They interpreted that as though she would be coaching similarly to how she always has.
Eight games into the season, it had become obvious that wouldn't be the case. The disease had limited her role significantly. Conversely, it had placed a huge burden on the assistants, most notably Warlick, who was fulfilling many of the duties of a head coach, but with no title or job security.
The December road trip didn't make it any easier. Warlick, a former All-American point guard with the Lady Vols, had the added concern of playing without injured point guard Ariel Massengale.
Warlick's stress showed.
Summitt's popularity in the state is understandable. She has won eight national championships and made the Lady Vols the marquee program in women's basketball.
But you have to make a road trip to appreciate her widespread appeal, which extends from coast to coast and is founded in more than her winning eight national championships. The cross-country December road trip indicated the coach's fan club would grow enormously this past season.
She had become more than just a successful coach. She had become the face of our fight against Alzheimer's.
Summitt received standing ovations wherever she went. The "We Back Pat" shirts were obvious in California as well as New York. On the afternoon before that night's Stanford game, I checked about the shirts. By then, the University of Tennessee Bookstore was receiving about 250 requests a day for shirts. Jed Dance, the vice president of Bacon and Company in Knoxville, said his company had printed about 50,000 T-shirts since the end of August.
"It has been unreal," he said.
Summitt has become the most successful coach in her sport by adhering to the same high standards day after day, practice after practice throughout her career. There has been a consistency about Summitt off the court as well.
Even in a two-minute conversation with someone she just met, she seems engrossed in the exchange. It's an endearing quality for anyone, but it's magnified by her celebrity status.
That ability to connect with people, even in the briefest of encounters, is a huge factor in her popularity. It's also a reason why the symptoms of the early onset dementia are more perceptible to those who know her best.
Mitchell said before the first UT-Kentucky game that he realized something was wrong "a couple of years ago." Like many of her friends and associates, he attributed the change to the medication she was taking for rheumatoid arthritis.
FLASHES OF OLD SELF
Although Summitt often seemed detached during games, there were instances when she was as focused as ever. That was evident at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky., before the start of the second half.
Summitt called guard Meighan Simmons aside. Her hand gestures reflected her intensity as she made a point to a player who had been struggling with her shooting. Summitt seemed so fixated on the message, she and Simmons might as well have been the only people in the arena.
UT fans loved seeing Summitt get involved in a game — the way she once was on a regular basis.
One of the loudest moments of the season came in the first half of a home game against Vanderbilt when Summitt went after the officials. Many in the crowd responded with a standing ovation.
FOR THE FANS
It's not unusual for Summitt's postgame radio show to draw a crowd, even on the road. But the one at Stegeman Coliseum following UT's victory over Georgia on Jan. 29 was bigger than usual.
After Summitt did her show at courtside with play-by-play announcer Mickey Dearstone, she signed autographs as she always has. It's a responsibility she has never taken lightly.
Dearstone said Summitt once was prepared to sign autographs following a game at the University of Oklahoma. But someone in authority wouldn't allow fans in the area where the coach had just done her show.
Summitt said it was OK, that she wanted to sign autographs. But the official wouldn't budge.
"We don't allow anybody on the floor," he said.
"We won't be back then," Summitt said.
UT fans probably did a double take when they saw South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier sitting at floor level in Thompson-Boling Arena for the UT-South Carolina game on Feb. 2. He wasn't there just because of the Gamecocks, who presented a check for $20,000 to the national Alzheimer's association on behalf of Summitt.
Although Spurrier is a rival coach — first at Florida and later at South Carolina — he always has admired Summitt. I didn't realize how much until he called me at home in the spring of 1997 just to tell me how impressed he was with Summitt's coaching that season.
The Lady Vols began the NCAA tournament with 10 losses but won six consecutive games to win the first of three consecutive national championships. None of the tournament games were closer than eight points.
Lady Vols fans have seldom been as upset over a home-court loss as they were a 64-60 defeat to South Carolina. The defeat suggested that the Lady Vols were getting worse, not better.
One of the angry fans approached me at my media seat following the loss.
"Do you still think Holly Warlick should be the head coach?" she asked. "You should have never written that. It was disrespectful of Pat."
She was referring to a December column in which I had written that since Summitt hadn't specified a date at which she would retire, the program would be best served — especially in recruiting — by designating Warlick as a coach-in-waiting.
By February, the column was outdated. It was obvious by then the current coaching arrangement couldn't continue beyond this season.
Fan discontent peaked a week after the South Carolina game, following a 93-79 loss to Vanderbilt in Nashville. Most of my emails from critical fans blamed Warlick. Some recommended who the next coach should be.
Mitchell's name came up. So did the name of Nikki Caldwell, the former UT player and assistant who is now the head coach at LSU.
Finally, I got the email I expected way back in November. "Hire Kim Mulkey," it read.
Lady Vols win 2012 SEC Championship
Tennessee started fast but lost its momentum and all but one point of a 19-point lead against Vanderbilt in its first game of the SEC tournament at Bridgestone Arena.
Two-time All-SEC senior Shekinna Stricklen wasn't part of the fast start. She went scoreless in the first half after going to the bench with two quick fouls.
But just when Vanderbilt appeared to be taking control of the game, Stricklen took over. She scored 16 points in the last 10 minutes on a variety of shots, including one from 25 feet to just beat the shot clock.
Stricklen would be the first to tell you that Summitt had a huge hand in her turnaround.
Before the Lady Vols inserted Stricklen back into the lineup, Summitt emphatically challenged Stricklen to raise her level of play.
"I really needed that because I was down on myself and frustrated," Stricklen said. She said, 'We need you to step up.' And I responded."
'WE WANT PAT'
Tennessee fans couldn't have imagined a better SEC tournament championship game.
It wasn't just a game. It was one giant celebration, preceded by a coaching reunion, which included more than Caldwell from the LSU side. Tasha Butts, one of her assistants, also played at UT. Another assistant, Tony Perotti, was a practice player for the Lady Vols.
The pregame hugs took awhile. The postgame celebration took a lot longer.
In fact, UT fans seemed to enjoy the postgame as much as their team's victory. That's probably because Summitt enjoyed as much of a presence as she has had all season.
Fans began chanting "We want Pat" as soon as the game ended. SEC commissioner Mike Slive presented her with the tournament trophy and referred to her as the greatest coach in the history of college basketball. Summitt then climbed a ladder and cut down a net.
She looked really happy.