'We Back Pat' comes home to Knoxville as the Lady Vols face Alabama

Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press
Tennessee Lady Vols head coach emeritus Pat Summitt, center row, third from left, watches Tennessee during the Lady Vols' season opener at Chattanooga on Nov. 9.

Photo by Angela Lewis

Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press Tennessee Lady Vols head coach emeritus Pat Summitt, center row, third from left, watches Tennessee during the Lady Vols' season opener at Chattanooga on Nov. 9.

Fans will file into Thompson-Boling Arena on Sunday for Tennessee's SEC women's basketball game against Alabama dressed for the occasion. In this case, many will be wearing "We Back Pat" shirts.

During the course of the afternoon, various business representatives will present Pat Summitt with checks for her foundation, concluding a week-long initiative throughout the league to raise funds and highlight the fight against Alzheimer's disease. Summitt has embraced the cause since announcing in August of 2011 that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.

Amid the fashion statements and presentations, Lady Vols senior Taber Spani will seek out Summitt before the opening tip (TV: CSS, 1 p.m.) and give her a hug. The gesture will serve as a reminder of Summitt's other, less-celebrated role as the Lady Vols head coach emeritus.

"You just see how courageous she is, being in the public, being at practice," Spani said. "That takes guts, no matter what's going on, especially with what she's going through. I don't know how those qualities cannot rub off on everyone on our team."

Summitt stepped down at the Lady Vols head coach last April, after 38 seasons, 1,098 victories and eight national championships. Her new role is for one year with a salary of $354,375.

She attends practice and home games, sitting in the stands across from the team bench. Otherwise, she has kept a relatively low profile. To date, she has not granted any interviews related to basketball.

Head coach Holly Warlick said that Summitt has an open invitation to travel with the team to road games. So far, she has attended only the season opener at Chattanooga on Nov. 9.

Warlick, a former Lady Vols point guard and assistant on Summitt's staff for 27 seasons, values whatever presence Summitt maintains.

"She's a reminder of where this program is and who built this program, the great tradition and how much respect we have for her," Warlick said. "I love it. I absolutely love it. I love what Pat stands for obviously and want our kids around Pat as much as possible."

Warlick said that she speaks with Summitt daily and that Summitt offers her opinion in the team huddles that are convened before and after practice.

"I want our players to hear what she has to say and what her perspective is," Warlick said.

Speaking for the players, Spani said that they are all ears for Summitt's input.

"Every word she says, we always hold onto, " Spani said. "No matter what it is, no matter the littlest or the biggest thing. So I definitely think she still has an influence and effect on this team."

As a senior, Spani has been afforded the opportunity to not only be coached by Summitt, but also to develop a relationship that extends beyond the court. She's taken full advantage and describes their interaction accordingly.

"Honestly, I get more out of it, I think, than she does," she said. "I just love it."

Spani has watched with great interest while the freshmen this season interact with Summitt. Although the circumstances have changed, Spani doesn't think that Summitt necessarily has changed in their eyes.

"Pat is still intimidating, before this diagnosis or after," Spani said. "I think it's more of an awe factor."

Warlick thinks that the practice setting ought to soften Summitt's stature and provide a comfortable environment for discourse.

"I think when she's here in practice, they get a chance to be around her in a casual atmosphere and just talk to her — about anything," Warlick said.

As a head coach, practice always was one of Summitt's favorite times. Warlick thinks the same still holds true.

"She's enjoying what she's doing right now," Warlick said. "She's enjoying coming to practice and then going home and being retired really. She's earned that right."

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Comments » 10

wigmeister writes:

Pat will, and should, be an inspiration to every player coming in to the program. She helped put women's sports on the map. But more importantly, I think they should realize that every player that has come through this program has graduated. That is an amazing legacy! It is the responsibility of every player, and every coach from here on to realize how awesome that is, and to make sure it does not change!

movol53 writes:

AMEN!!! wigmeister.

While it is true that Pat dearly loved to win; she never took her eye off the real development; that being making educated young women who are now much more ready to take on the world than were would have been had they not been taught by Pat. GO LADY VOLS!!!

Lookout1234 writes:

I know all you fans just loved Pat, but she stayed in the game way too long. By the time she retired she was suffering from dementia. She should have retired 10 years before she did and given her second in command a chance to run the show.

movol53 writes:

Lookout, I'll agree to possibly 5 years; really had hopes she had retired at 8 Nat'l Champs but I'm sure she thought that she was feeling just fine. I don't know how old you are but as you get older its difficult to tell if you are forgetting things just because or if there is a REAL medical reason for it. Pat and I are the same age and seeing this disease hit her scares the ---- out of me. I doubt I could face it openly as she has. But there will come a time when we will no longer see Pat probably long before see passes.

ps11824 writes:

Lookout1234, no need for that comment AT ALL. To assume you know more what Pat should have done than Pat is just disrespectful and truly offensive to fans. I take offense...

VOLFORLIFE writes:

in response to ps11824:

Lookout1234, no need for that comment AT ALL. To assume you know more what Pat should have done than Pat is just disrespectful and truly offensive to fans. I take offense...

I agree wholeheartedly, 98reax!! Some people need to either stop thinking, or learn to keep some of their "thoughts" to themselves. I, too, take offense at such a statement!

volfan2002 writes:

A great day to support Pat and a cure for her disease and also to pound Alabama on the court will make for a great day.

snowpeapod#263184 writes:

Congratulations to the First Lady of womens basketball, worldwide !!!!!!

Anne37128 writes:

How great to honor and show respect to Pat who has shown the ultimate class and humility during her entire career and who has set the highest example for us all in the development of others.

snowpeapod#263184 writes:

in response to mountainViews:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

You have to consider where 1234 is coming from. There are people whose only purpose is to create controversy. I'm under the assumption that Lookout didn't know what her IQ was and only that it was 1,2,3, or 4 so he/she decided to use them all.

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