Monday, March 26, 2012
Pat Summitt and Her Staff
Pat Summitt’s assistants noticed something different about her last season. At times, she was forgetful, hesitant, confused. Was it stress? Her arthritis medication?
Then came the announcement last summer that Summitt had early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. It brought a shock to college basketball. But it also brought clarity of purpose to her assistants at Tennessee and what would become their new and expanded roles.“It cleared the air a little bit,” said Mickie DeMoss, a longtime assistant. “It took the energy out of, ‘What’s wrong?’ We were able to move forward: this is the problem, and this is how we’re going to deal with it.”
Summitt, with eight national titles and more victories than any other college coach, man or woman, would remain in charge. But her role would be necessarily diminished. DeMoss would run the offense, with input from Summitt. Her other assistants, Holly Warlick and Dean Lockwood, would handle the defense.
During games, their roles have become more fluid, each offering help where it is needed. But the players needed to hear one primary voice. So Warlick has assumed broader, more vocal duties on the bench, in the huddles, and has spoken at postgame news conferences.
Inevitably, there have been awkward moments. Yet the Lady Vols (27-8) have reached an accustomed position, playing in a regional final here Monday against top-seeded Baylor (37-0), seeking a chance to play for a ninth national championship in what could be Summitt’s final season as the coach.
“No team has had to deal with something like this,” Alicia Manning, a senior guard, said. “I think at first, it was a little shaky. Everyone was trying to find their role without overstepping people’s boundaries. With anything, it takes time. They’ve developed a lot of chemistry. Things are rolling really well right now.”
It seems vital that the Tennessee assistants had been on staff for years. Warlick played for Summitt and has been an assistant for 27 years. Moss has been with the Lady Vols for 20 years in two stints. Lockwood is in his 13th season at Tennessee and has coached with the women’s and men’s teams. He and DeMoss have been head coaches at other programs. No one was jockeying to usurp Summitt, only to help her.
“I think it could have been a nightmare with another staff,” DeMoss said. “There have been a few bumps in the road, but nothing major. The wheels didn’t fall off.”
Early on, Tennessee lost a lead at home to Baylor, then suffered blowout losses at Stanford and Notre Dame. For only the second time in Summitt’s 38 seasons, the Lady Vols lost three games at home. Sometimes, the assistants second-guessed themselves.
“We had to go back and re-evaluate,” DeMoss said. “Did we handle those kids right? Did we have good enough preparation?”
Early on, Warlick said she found it difficult to assert herself with Summitt, the pioneer and legend, sitting on the bench. After the first of the year, Summitt told her, “Do what you’ve got to do to help this team.”
After Tennessee won the Southeastern Conference tournament, Summitt told her, “You did a great job.” If Warlick needed a moment of validation, that was it. “That meant the world to me,” she said.
Approaching the N.C.A.A. tournament, Warlick said: “It gave me a lot more confidence. It’s not anything trying to step on Pat Summitt’s toes. She has pushed me that way. So I took it and ran with it.”
There has been some indecisiveness in making substitutions, partly because players have been inconsistent. Lately, the process has been streamlined. “We just stopped dancing around a little bit and started doing it,” Lockwood said.
At practice, the assistants also have grown more comfortable in defining their roles. The one in charge of scouting the coming opponent has the dominant voice. “We don’t have three people trying to talk over each other,” DeMoss said.
Meanwhile, Summitt has remained upbeat and willing to delegate authority. DeMoss said: “We haven’t had to worry, is Pat all right? Does she need to be doing more? Doing less? She just rolls with it. That’s made it easier on us.”
At one point, Tennessee’s five seniors approached Summitt and asked to hear her fiery voice more often. It can be lacerating and reassuring at the same time. She would speak up more, Summitt said, if the seniors took more responsibility as leaders.
“Hearing something from Coach is completely different from hearing something from somebody else,” center Vicki Baugh said. “Everyone has the ultimate respect for her. We wanted her to be more vocal, and she did. In return, she asked us to do the same.”
Summitt now prefers to give individual instruction. In particular, she has worked with Shekinna Stricklen, a resourceful but laid-back forward who, according to Summitt, likes basketball only slightly more than fishing.
On Saturday, as Tennessee fell behind Kansas by 14 points before rallying to win by 84-73, Summitt was her familiar self, or something like it, standing near midcourt, arms crossed, glaring, barking at Stricklen to become more assertive.
“We told her, ‘You’re still our coach, yell at us, get on us, we want to see the stare,’ ” Stricklen said. “It makes us really want to go out and give it all we’ve got.”
On Sunday, Warlick said she expected Summitt to return next season. Just what Summitt’s role would be — head coach, coach emeritus — remains to be determined. For now, there is a game to play and a championship in reach.
“I’m doing what an assistant coach should do,” Warlick said. “When a coach asks you to do something, you do it. And you always have their back. It’s a loyalty thing as well.”
Posted by Massey Basketball