When Tennessee's Glory Johnson was honored for grabbing her 1,000th career rebound, Lady Vols head coach Pat Summitt joined the senior forward on the Thompson-Boling Arena court before a Jan. 15 game against Vanderbilt. During the course of the proceedings, Summitt turned to Johnson and told her "I love you.""It means so much,'' Johnson said. "She says that a lot to me and it's not something that you hear too often. But you have to remember, it's a family and she's been taking care of me since I got here as a freshman, even when she's yelling at me."
In any other women's basketball season, the heartfelt moment might have stood out. But this particular season has been full of such instances. And the vast majority have been directed toward Summitt, who announced in August that she had received a diagnosis of early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type but would continue coaching. Everyone from colleagues to former players to fans have expressed their respect and appreciation to the legendary coach.
Georgia women's coach Andy Landers was Summitt's rival long before anyone was stressing out over Connecticut's Geno Auriemma. The night before the SEC Media Day preseason gathering in Birmingham, Ala., he called and asked, "Is there anything I can say for you that you're not comfortable saying?"
Landers wanted to help. Imagine that.
The unusual gesture unwittingly set the tone for an unusual season — one full of standing ovations from fans wearing "We back Pat" T-shirts and contributing to a foundation fund that she and her son, Tyler, formulated to make grants toward Alzheimer's education and research.
Even the opposition has worn the shirts and contributed to the fund.
The following narrative chronicles some of the people, places and events that have transpired literally from coast to coast. While Summitt's role as a coach has been diminished by the disease, her status as an icon has never been greater.
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.
Video from the SEC Championship
This special section was published on April 1, 2012