DES MOINES, Iowa — A challenging season ended for the Tennessee women's basketball program Monday night. The challenges of recruiting loom even larger now.
"Instead of selling something, we're having to explain something," UT assistant coach Mickie DeMoss said. "I'll be honest with you. It's difficult.
"Do we have a great group of prospects in our basket right now? Absolutely, because they're still attracted to Tennessee. It's just a little bit of the uncertainty that's making them hesitant to commit."
The uncertainty began before the 2011-12 season when coach Pat Summitt announced she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, but that she would continue coaching.
Seven months later, her situation remains uncertain. While no one could expect her to be the coach beyond this season, there is reason to believe she will be involved with the program in some capacity.
The question remains: In what capacity?
It's a crucial question as UT approaches the April signing period in recruiting. The program will lose five seniors and is seeking immediate help from the junior college ranks to complement the team's returning players as well as the freshman recruits who signed in November.
Those junior college prospects as well as the high school recruits in the 2013 class want to know who their coach would be at UT. Right now, the Lady Vols can't tell them.
"We are as honest as we possibly can be," DeMoss said. "This is still Tennessee. Pat is still involved. Is she as involved as she used to be? No.
"But the determination to play at a high level, that never changes (at UT). If that's what you want and you want that atmosphere, then Tennessee is certainly a place for you to consider."
Considering a program is one thing. Committing to it is another.
Summitt often bridged that gap. As good of a coach as she has been in her 38-year career, she has been just as good of a recruiter.
"What separates the good recruiters from the great recruiters is being able to close the deal," DeMoss said. "I think that's one of the things that Pat is so good at, closing the deal. A lot of head coaches can't close it."
DeMoss can cite one example after another of how Summitt can close a deal. One involved former center Michelle Snow.
The Lady Vols were practicing when Snow called DeMoss on signing day and told her she had decided to sign with North Carolina. DeMoss relayed the message to Summitt, who blew her whistle and ordered her players to practice free throws. She then called Snow from courtside.
DeMoss relishes relating Summitt's side of the conversation, which she overheard.
"Sign the papers, now," Summitt ordered Snow. "I will call you back in 10 minutes. Do you understand me?"
DeMoss said Summitt then slammed down the phone and went back to coaching.
A few minutes later, Snow called back. She said she had signed with UT.
"I've spoken at some clinics and given that example," DeMoss said. "I always say, 'I wouldn't advise all coaches to do that.'
"Pat Summitt could get by with that."
Summitt's salesmanship might vary from one player to the next.
When UT was recruiting Kara Lawson, Lawson's father was insistent that she attend Duke. Summitt could empathize. Her father had been just as adamant about what school Summitt would attend. So she didn't argue the point.
"When Pat backed off, it made (Tennessee) more attractive to (Lawson)," DeMoss said.
Summitt can still sell Tennessee basketball. And that's just one more reason why UT needs to keep her involved in the program as long as she wants to be.
DeMoss said when she told Summitt how difficult it is to get players to commit at this point, Summitt said, "I don't want to do anything to hurt the program."
"I said, 'You're not,' " DeMoss said. " 'If it weren't for you, they may not even be attracted to us.
"But we've got to navigate (the health issue)."
If UT would promote associate head coach Holly Warlick to head coach, that would more than clear up the uncertainty surrounding the program. It also would enable the Lady Vols to use Summitt in another role.
As long as Summitt is a member of the department, she would be able to recruit over the phone. Don't underestimate the significance of that.
"Recruiting is the lifeblood of the program," DeMoss said. "To compete at the level Tennessee is used to competing at, you've got to get the great players."
Even if Summitt weren't the coach, she could still help the Lady Vols do that.