KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- It will occur to Holly Warlick some evenings as she's driving home from the always-busy Tennessee women's basketball office. It's then that the thoughts to which she doesn't want to give airtime in her mind sometimes sneak in anyway.
One of the most important, influential, beloved people in her life -- her coach for four years and her mentor/boss for more than a quarter-century -- is facing an opponent that defies any scouting report and is considered to be, ultimately, unbeatable. At least for now.
How can that be? Pat Summitt isn't just a great basketball coach, a monumental figure in American sports history, and a towering legend in her state. That all would be more than enough to make any threat to her seem surreal.
But she is also a rock-solid reliable, down-to-earth friend. A beacon of strength. A font of advice. Even a needed shelter. She means so much to so many people who don't even actually know her. And she means just as much -- in the most individual, personal ways -- to those who know her best.
Warlick was born and raised in Knoxville, then played for Summitt from 1976 to 1980. She went away for four years to start her coaching career, came back home, and was there at Summitt's side on the bench for every one of the eight NCAA basketball titles Tennessee's women have won.
Warlick has been inducted into various halls of fame, ridden a motorcycle all over the country to raise funds for charity, knows the ins and outs of everything Summitt's program has done and is doing -- from the smallest to largest details. She is quite the impressive, accomplished figure herself.
But she now has these uninvited moments of unprecedented concern.
Summitt, 59, has early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, and publicly announced it in August. Her coaching staff knew a few months before that, when Summitt was initially diagnosed. Initial, inevitable denial is past. Yet Warlick sometimes still finds herself thinking, "Is this real? What will things be like in six months? Or a year? Or two years?"
Soon she shakes herself out of it, irritated. You can't sit here and be scared or sad or melancholy, she thinks. Dammit, you just can't. Is there a more disrespectful thing to do than to feel that way when the woman who's actually grappling with the monster refuses to succumb to any of those goblins?
Warlick then puts her mind back again to where it needs to be.
"There are times I get emotional," Warlick said. "But you look at Pat, and she's like, 'What's the problem?' She gives me strength.
"But it hits you at weird times. Somebody stopped me in the grocery store the day before Thanksgiving, and this lady was just like …"
Warlick pauses and sighs. She fully appreciates that people want to express their concern and their support, but when they start tearing up, it's hard for her to want to do anything but flee.
"I was just thinking, 'Oh, my gosh, I've got to get out of here,'" Warlick said.
Yet it's a testament to human adaptation just how well each one of the many cogs in the Tennessee women's basketball machine has adjusted. If at first Summitt's diagnosis sparked disbelief, fear and grief, it quickly turned into something galvanizing.
"We're the inner shell," assistant Dean Lockwood said of Summitt's coaches. "But all of the support staff is aware this is a family time and a family issue. As families do, you come together, protect, rally, unite. They all feel that investment."
That's especially because so many people affiliated with Tennessee women's basketball have been on the job so long. In fact, there are decades worth of investment for some, who in essence bought "stock" a long time ago in what Summitt was building.
"Those people can appreciate the struggle and the way the program climbed, because they were here to see it," Lockwood said. "Pat started in Alumni Gym, driving vans and washing uniforms. And if you were around for part of that or close to it -- or even if you weren't, but have taken the time to learn about it -- you have an appreciation for the journey. Instinctively, you respect it, you honor it, and you're going to protect it."
Holly Warlick talks about the adjustments for Tennessee's assistants and the outpouring of support for Pat Summitt.
Making up their own instruction book
Warlick could have been a head coach a long time ago at any number of schools. But she stayed put. She loves Knoxville not just because it has been her near-lifelong home, but also because it's an epicenter for women's basketball in particular, and women's sports in general. When you're living at an oasis, why wander into the desert?
That said, her friend and fellow Lady Vols assistant, Mickie DeMoss, did wander a bit. What she found wasn't necessarily the equivalent of unending sand and intense heat … but it also wasn't the happiness and fulfillment she has had at Rocky Top, either.
DeMoss actually began her coaching career at the other end of the state as an assistant at Memphis State in 1977. In 1979, she became head coach at Florida. She moved back to an assistant's role at Auburn in 1983, then came to Tennessee as an assistant in 1985, the same time as Warlick.
After 18 seasons and six NCAA championship teams in Knoxville, she decided it was time to try being a head coach again, and went to Kentucky in 2003. She had a brief "retirement" in 2007, followed by another assistant's role at Texas. But in the back of her mind, DeMoss said, "I always knew Pat was going to be there for me."
Summitt asked DeMoss to return to Knoxville in 2010.
"If it had been anybody else who had called me, I'd still be at Texas or I'd be done, at least with college coaching," DeMoss said. "A lot of people want to be their own boss, and run their own program. My path took some curves."
Warlick teased, "We thought she lost her mind for a while."
And, yeah, it's still OK to make jokes like that. Summitt, in fact, would be the first to do so. Everyone fully grasps the gravity of what she is facing, but they've taken their lead from her that humor is not just allowed but strongly encouraged.
"There are moments you stop and think, 'This is some serious stuff,' and it's happening to someone who is so dear to you," DeMoss said. "And you don't know how it's going to turn out. The results have not been great; my mom went through it. It is very difficult sometimes, and you can really get sad about it.
"But we try to make Pat's days as stress-free as we can make them. And in turn, she has a much lighter attitude about things. She is not as serious. Which I guess makes it a little bit easier for us."
It was DeMoss who really noticed last season that something had changed about Summitt.
"Being gone seven years and coming back, it was clearer to me that things were different," DeMoss said. "I think Holly and Dean had seen a more gradual disengagement. But to me, it was just evident, when I got back. Pat was still involved, but not quite like I had remembered her being involved seven years before."
It was challenging to talk about. But all three assistants began to take on bigger roles, to pick up on whatever they saw needed more attention. There was no drop-off with anything about the program; the Lady Vols still won the SEC regular-season and tournament titles, then made it to the NCAA tournament Elite Eight, where they fell to a Notre Dame team that went on to make the national championship game.
The diagnosis came in late spring, and was very jarring for the assistants. But it wasn't until after Summitt told her players in August that a finality -- the differences were permanent -- fully hit Warlick, DeMoss and Lockwood.
"She made the announcement to the kids, and then we went over to her house," Warlick said. "And she explained more things to us. I think that was the reality for us that things had truly changed."
There wasn't a specific road map for any of them to follow.
"We didn't know," DeMoss said. "There's no instruction book on how you handle dementia with a basketball coach."
But they began to think of it in another way. Summitt was still in charge, but she needed more help. Others had to take on bigger roles, be ready to do things they hadn't before.
So was that really different than what coaches ask of their teams if a star player is not at 100 percent? Hadn't they spent their careers teaching that everyone had to stretch themselves to prove what "team" really is?
There it was: The closest thing to an "instruction book" was simply in remembering all the lessons they'd given their players about unifying in adverse circumstances. Now, they had to apply it to themselves.
Maintaining the foundation that Pat built
It's a dreary-looking morning, as soft but steady rain falls, making thousands of tiny splashes in the Tennessee River that winds along outside Thompson-Boling Arena. Inside the women's basketball office, everyone is already submersed in work.
Adjustments have been made this season. Staff member and former Lady Vol standout Daedra Charles-Furlow, whose official title is director of character development, has been authorized to help with recruiting since Summitt's travel has been curtailed.
Recruiting would seem like a very touchy subject. Yet Tennessee has handled it head on.
"We are straightforward and honest with recruits," Lockwood said. "There's no attempt to push that to the side. Pat set that tone with her announcement. When she was dealing with the diagnosis, and getting feedback from her inner circle, some were saying, 'Wait a year to tell people.'
"She said, 'That's not who I am. I would feel like a complete phony if I didn't look people in the eye and say, 'This is what's happened; this is what I'm going to do.' That very same line of thinking carries over into our recruiting."
The first calls that the coaches made after Summitt's public announcement were to the recruits who'd already pledged to come to Tennessee.
"Pat was on the phone with the parents and the kids right away," DeMoss said. "And they said, 'We're still on board.'
"With recruits we're trying to get, we say, 'This is what we have today.' We are concerned about parents saying, 'I want to know who my daughter's going to play for.' We have to say, 'There are no guarantees,' and sell them on what we have."
Which is substantial, as one glance at all the hardware in Tennessee's office proves. They also can assure young women of this, Warlick says: "The foundation that Pat has built here, and the core values, are still in place.
"I tell them, 'I plan on being here, Mickie plans on being here, Dean plans on being here.' So we're part of that foundation as well."
In games, you will typically see Warlick take the lead in huddles, although DeMoss and Lockwood can also draw up plays and Summitt is always consulted.
Warlick handles most of the formal media responsibilities with press conferences. Each assistant, with input from Summitt, helps with the decision-making in all things every day.
"You look at football staffs, and that's basically how they operate," DeMoss said. "We know intuitively when to stay quiet and when to speak up. We may not always agree, which is good, I think. We bring in new ideas and ways to do things. But as far as the respect factor for each other, I don't think that's ever wavered here. That trumps over everything.
"We're not going to argue about, 'Do we trap on ball screens or not?' during a timeout. We all have the same intent: We want what's best for this team and Pat. So we know that the three of us can't be in the huddle screaming, and the kids are sitting there with their eyes rolling back in the heads, like, 'What the heck are they talking about?'"
Warlick said that Summitt's longstanding practice of empowering her assistants to handle significant duties has made this transition much more fluid than if she'd always kept an iron grip on all aspects of coaching.
"If you watch other people's benches, there are some head coaches that don't use their assistants much at all in games," Warlick said. "And that works fine for some people. But we've always shared the responsibilities. So what we're doing now is indicative of what Pat's done for her whole career here."
Lockwood added, "I think all of us have been in coaching long enough that we know there are certain points in a game where the kids need to hear only one voice, and one voice alone. And there are other moments when each of us can interject something. We just feed off of each other; we are very much in sync."
The staff thinks this particular group of Lady Vols -- including a senior class of Glory Johnson, Shekinna Stricklen, Alicia Manning, Briana Bass, and redshirt Vicki Baugh that has been through some rough patches competitively -- is emotionally well-equipped to have made the adjustments they have.
"Sometimes I think if it had to happen, this was the group to best deal with it," DeMoss said. "There have been some teams here that maybe had more of an edge, and they won a lot of games … but I don't think they cared as much about each other. In one sense, it's good that this is the team that's been dealt this hand. Can this team take this adverse situation and still develop that edge it needs? I don't know yet. I just know they've done a good job handling the emotional end of it."
Tennessee's Glory Johnson talks about how the Lady Vols have adjusted to the assistants' expanded roles and how close the team is.
A close-knit staff
Lockwood is the Northerner of the group, a native of Michigan. His personality is like a bag of popcorn that magically never runs out of kernels, symbolic of the bursts of enthusiasm, inspiration and ideas that keep coming from him. He at times slaps his palms together or on a table before him, smiling, as he emphasizes a point. His emotional baseline runs the gamut from upbeat to super-upbeat.
Lockwood spent the first 22 years of his career coaching men's basketball, including five years as an assistant with Tennessee's men. During that time, 1986-91, he watched as the Tennessee women won the program's first three NCAA titles.
"One of the things I found out about Pat is that as competitive as she is -- and she is ultra-competitive -- she is most passionate about mentoring young women to be leaders," Lockwood said. "To be highly effective, to be difference-makers in their worlds, whatever their pursuits may be when they leave here.
"I coached at West Point for three years, and only one of those was a winning season. But I can't tell you how special it was to know you had an opportunity to impact people who would be leading and doing unbelievably significant things later in their lives. I come here and get the same feeling, being around this program."
DeMoss has been one of the most effective recruiters in the women's game for many years. She can seem like a character out of a sitcom like "Designing Women:" The zany Southerner who cracks up everyone when it's most needed. But that sharp wit can sometimes be a mask for DeMoss.
In the insightful, personally revealing books "Reach for the Summit" and "Raise the Roof" that Summitt co-authored with Sally Jenkins in the late 1990s, there were several hilarious stories about DeMoss … but also some poignant ones, too.
DeMoss was raised in rural northeast Louisiana by a strong-willed, hard-working mother. But she barely knew her father. Summitt wrote of finding out that DeMoss never had a Christmas tree growing up, and how she went out to buy DeMoss her first when she came to work at Tennessee.
Summitt also told of how Warlick's father had died when she was a sophomore in high school, so she'd had to take care of herself and things around the house as her mother worked 12-hour shifts.
You can see where after all these years -- even with their time apart -- Warlick and DeMoss have a natural kind of yin and yang about them. DeMoss seems more often the joker, Warlick the worrier. Yet there are times when those roles are reversed. They've both brought things individually to Tennessee and to Summitt that are enhanced by their mutual devotion to her.
"I was always amazed at Pat's resolve to every day come in and work at this level," DeMoss said. "Eddie Fogler, when he was coaching at South Carolina, came here to see our locker room and offices, and he said, 'Y'all know you don't really live in reality, right?' Because he knew we were just so accustomed every year to going to the Final Four.
"It hit me when I left here: It's special that the program has been able to withstand the test of time. And so much of it has been Pat's leadership."
DeMoss thinks she returned to Tennessee at exactly the right time.
"I am so glad to be back here," she said, "during what's a pretty rough time for Pat."
It was the last Sunday in November, a huge crowd, and No. 1-ranked Baylor in Thompson-Boling Arena. Among the fans were former Tennessee standouts Jill Rankin, Sheila Frost, Michelle Marciniak, Chamique Holdsclaw and Alexis Hornbuckle. Rankin started at Tennessee in 1979; Hornbuckle ended her career there in 2008. Frost played in the 1980s, Marciniak and Holdsclaw in the 1990s.
All but Rankin won national championships at Tennessee. In other words, those five players represent the amazing breadth of Summitt's career.
During that time, Summitt has had one secretary: Katie Wynn. She has had one sports information director: Debby Jennings. She has had the same women's athletics director since 1983: Joan Cronan.
"I've been out of school for 12 years, and I go back and it's the same people," said Holdsclaw, the program's all-time leading scorer and rebounder who has a street near the arena named after her. "It's like I haven't even been gone for a day. You still feel that support you felt when you were a student there."
Wynn has been like a "point guard" for Summitt when it comes to her prodigious off-court scheduling, which she has had to scale back some. Jennings is the premier historian among all women's basketball SIDs, long the trend-setter in running the most professional and thorough media-relations organization in women's college sports.
Cronan is of the pioneer generation of women's athletic administrators. She coached women's basketball at Tennessee from 1968 to 1970, then went to the College of Charleston as its women's athletics director before returning to Knoxville. One of Cronan's biggest supporters was her late husband, Tom, who passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2006. Now she's dealing with a serious illness striking Summitt, who has become a close friend over the decades.
"The personal part is really tough," Cronan said. "But the way she's handling it is encouraging for the world. When Pat was first diagnosed, from everywhere on Earth, I heard from everybody who claimed to have a cure.
"Now I'm getting letters from all over saying that Pat coming forward has made a difference in their mother, their brother, their dad, their aunt, their sister -- whoever in their family is battling this disease. I had a young lady who told me her mother was diagnosed and then went into a shell. She said when Pat came out and said she had dementia, her mother changed her whole outlook on life. We're hoping we can make a difference, not only with Pat as a role model, but raising money to find a cure."
The Pat Summitt Foundation, dedicated to that cause, was officially announced at the Baylor game. Tyler Summitt, whom DeMoss and Warlick saw born in a Knoxville hospital room 20 years ago, is standing tall alongside his mother in hopes that the foundation will help lead to a major breakthrough.
"When I first played for Pat, she wasn't a known coach," Warlick said. "I didn't come here to play for Pat Head [Summitt's maiden name] specifically, although I'd heard good things about her. I came to play for the University of Tennessee. But what an impact she made on us, when we didn't even come realizing she was this great coach.
"Now I look at it and here is Pat with this disease, and she's still making an impact."
The solid sequoia
Summitt was honored with the Maggie Dixon Courage Award on Sunday, when the Lady Vols beat DePaul 84-61 at Madison Square Garden in New York to move to 5-2 in a season with, as always, a very difficult schedule.
On March 19, 2006, Army -- having won that school's first NCAA tournament berth that had jubilant cadets giving coach Dixon a ride on their shoulders -- faced Tennessee in the first round in Knoxville. The Lady Vols won 102-54, and Summitt congratulated the young coach on what appeared to be just the start of a meteoric career.
Eighteen days later, Dixon died suddenly of a heart ailment. She was 28.
In 2007 and '08, Summitt won her seventh and eighth NCAA titles. In 2009, she got her 1,000th career victory. Who knew how big that total would get? What would stop Summitt?
"This disease is a reminder that, ultimately, all of us will not be what we once were," Lockwood said. "For everyone, things will change. It does make it hard when you see that someone who has accomplished so much, they're vulnerable, too, just like every human being. It shakes us all at our core. But what's really important is how you respond to that. That's certainly what all of us have been processing."
When it's mentioned to Summitt's staff that she is like a sequoia, the towering tree that gives everyone a sense of immense and comforting solidity, of lasting permanence, they gravitate to that image and smile.
"For 38 years, she's been this giant in the game, with success year after year," Lockwood said. "Then this disease hits, and to use that analogy, for the first time, you can see that sequoia bend a little.
"I'd love to write the end where we win a couple more championships, but there's no guarantee of anything. I drove to Indianapolis recruiting recently, and I had 11 hours in the car. I was thinking about so much stuff. And at the end, it's like all we can do is help make this as good as it can be for Pat. We want there to be a big smile on her face, a great feeling in her heart about what her program is, what it has done, and where it will go."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.