The inherent risks in assumptions have been stated well and often. But I still thought I was on solid ground in speculating on the Lady Vols’ upcoming basketball season in late August.
The news: Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt had just announced she would continue coaching despite being diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.
My assumption: This would be the most motivated team in Lady Vols history.
It wouldn’t be playing for just another SEC championship, a trip to the Final Four or the program’s ninth national title. It would be playing for one of the sport’s most renowned and determined coaches.
Summitt already was contending with rheumatoid arthritis. Yet she chose to take on Alzheimer’s as well. And she chose to do so in the most public of settings.
I assumed the team would follow her lead with a fighting spirit that would rival any of Summitt’s teams. I was wrong.
UT fans agonize at seeing their adored coach appear detached and uninvolved on the bench, especially when her team is looking as helpless as it was in a 93-79 loss to Vanderbilt on Thursday night. Those are symptoms, not a choice.
But a reasonably healthy and talented team seems more afflicted. It wilts in the face of adversity and repeatedly responds in a manner that contradicts what Summitt’s program has been about for most of her 38 seasons. Basically, it just doesn’t hate losing enough.
That’s not to suggest the Lady Vols giggle through a decisive defeat or dance blithely off the court when a rival has abused them to the degree Vanderbilt did. They might be as committed to avoiding such misadventures as your average women’s basketball team.
But Lady Vols basketball has never been average. Defeats have been rare and rarely forgotten. Summitt figures prominently in that mind-set. My guess is on her best day she could recite the play-by-play of a first-round NCAA tournament loss to Ball State more readily than she could the specifics of any one of her national championship victories.
The core group of this team is comprised of five seniors, the majority of whose names show up in the infamous Ball State box score. Of the quintet, only fifth-year senior Vicki Baugh has played in a Final Four.
The group’s track record isn’t marked solely by misfortune. As freshmen, they set a program record in rallying from a 20-point halftime deficit to win at Rutgers. They have won to back-to-back SEC championships and compiled a 66-6 record over their last two full seasons.
They also have been a good bunch off the court. So has this entire team for that matter. There have been no suspensions and no academic casualties. In preseason, assistant coach Mickie DeMoss lauded the players for their help in recruiting.
“It’s the best team we’ve ever had (for recruiting),” she said. “The best I’ve been around.”
The salesmanship probably comes genuinely for players who seem to enjoy playing for UT and playing with each other. But they’re missing out on a vital part of the Tennessee women’s basketball experience — the agony of defeat.
They frequently botch the most rudimentary acts of the sport. They seem distressed rather than motivated when a lesser team challenges them. They make the same mistakes game after game. And when the mistakes add up to a defeat, the Lady Vols quickly — too quickly — move on.
Senior Glory Johnson lately has become an exception to the process in that she seems more visibly bothered as the losses pile up at a rate that counters the program’s long-standing success. But the team apparently doesn’t comprehend that the success wasn’t achieved solely on talent or coaching. No one should underestimate how much a loathing for losing figured in all those championships and Final Fours.
You could argue that a healthy Summitt could have altered this team’s course. But recent history would undermine your argument. She has berated these seniors since they were freshmen for failing to play up to their potential and she has never been able to lead them beyond the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
Certainly, this is anything but an optimal coaching situation. Summitt is severely limited by her disease, and the three assistants are spread thin. Associate head coach Holly Warlick has a head coach’s responsibility but without the title to back it up. She doesn’t even have a contract.
The team has responded so poorly to the fractured leadership that it could cost the assistant coaches their jobs since it’s unlikely Summitt would coach beyond this season. Fair or not, first-year athletic director Dave Hart might judge Warlick as an unsuitable replacement for Summitt based on what has transpired in this strangest of seasons.
That possibility might inspire some teams.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/johnadamskns.