Pat Summitt gives Holly Warlick her whistle
The last Tennessee women's basketball season was distinguished by adjustments, for obvious reasons. The adjustments will continue in recruiting.
The recruiting picture is significantly clearer now that Pat Summitt has stepped down as head coach after 38 seasons and her longtime assistant, Holly Warlick, has been hired as her successor. It's clearer, but it's also different.
Recruiting for the Lady Vols has long been as simple as dropping a name — Summitt's name. While that didn't assure them of success, it got them in the conversation with almost every prize prospect.
Recruits in any sport are advised to sign with a school, not a coach, in that the school will always be there while the coach might not. But given Summitt's longevity and success, how could a recruit separate the coach from the school when they were so intertwined?
"Some of my friends joke around and say this is 'the University of Pat Summitt, not the University of Tennessee,' " said Cierra Burdick, who just completed her freshman season with the Lady Vols.
Burdick also had trouble distinguishing the coach from the program during the recruiting process.
"When I sat down with (the coaching staff) as a junior (in high school), I remember saying this precisely: 'Are you going anywhere?' " Burdick said. "They looked at me with total assurance and said 'we're not.'
"Although Pat has accepted a new role, she is not going anywhere."
Summitt's continued involvement with the program as a head coach emeritus could be perceived as nothing more than a goodwill gesture in return for all she has done for the school and the sport. In fact, she will continue to have an impact, especially in recruiting.
Granted, she's no longer the head coach. Yet her name recognition is greater than ever, mainly because of how she has publicly taken on a disease — early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type — that forces most of its victims to withdraw.
Summitt was the biggest celebrity in her sport before she announced her medical diagnosis last August. Now, she's better known than ever.
Don't underestimate the effect of her celebrity status. In a few instances, it might have even worked to the program's and player's detriment. Her program was never for everybody. The demands were high. So were the expectations. But some players might have been so dazzled at the prospect of playing for such a legendary figure, they couldn't see beyond that and fully understand how challenging this program could be.
"Somewhere along the line, that definitely has occurred," UT assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. "Some of the players we had leave recently, that probably was the case."
On the same day that Summitt announced she would no longer be the head coach but would remain in the program, Lockwood and Warlick began spreading the word among recruits,
Lockwood said in his conversations with eight or nine high school players that they all seemed to like the idea Summitt still would be involved in the program.
Although UT's recruiting pitch must be altered, the change isn't as drastic as it would have been if Summitt had left the program, and athletic director Dave Hart had hired a successor from outside the program.
"One of the huge components for us is that the Lady Vols' values aren't going anywhere," Lockwood said. "Her impact and influence are still very strong."
And they will be for a long time, according to UT player Taber Spani.
"Even when she retires, her imprints will be all over the program," Spani said. "As long as she is living, she will be involved in Lady Vols basketball."
And as long as she is involved, UT recruiters can sell the Summitt tradition.