Last November, driving in Tennessee from Pat Summitt's childhood home in Montgomery County to where she attended college in Martin, the reality truly sunk in.
After covering the Baylor-Tennessee women's game in Knoxville, the next morning was spent in the busy hive of the Lady Vols' women's basketball offices with the assistant coaches. While their loyalty to and love for Summitt was more steadfast than ever, they didn't try to sugarcoat her situation.
They were in unchartered waters, but determined to make the best of it for the current team, the future of the program and Summitt herself. They knew this day -- when Summitt officially stepped aside as head coach and took an emeritus title -- was coming.
They'd known it since last spring, when Summitt received her diagnosis of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. When she publicly announced it last August, the rest of us were confronted with something that seemed previously unimaginable. Summitt, who doesn't turn 60 until June, was near the end of her coaching career.
Wednesday, Tennessee officially announced that associate head coach Holly Warlick would move into the role of head coach, which -- for all practical purposes -- she filled this past season. Warlick was in charge on the bench and handled the media and news conference duties. But while she had all the responsibility of a head coach, she did not have the authority that is conferred both symbolically and practically by the title. She does now.
Tennessee needed to make this move, and the timing is sensible, too. Recruiting in 2012 gets into high gear this weekend with the spring evaluation period, after which coaches can't go out to see prospects again until July. The time for the inevitable baton handoff is now, and despite all the emotion involved, this is a wise, practical decision.
There has been outside speculation for months about whether Warlick would get the chance to be the head coach or whether there would be a more drastic change by bringing in someone else. The names most mentioned were former Tennessee players Nikki Caldwell and Kellie Harper. Both are head coaches elsewhere: Caldwell just finished her first season at LSU, and Harper her third at NC State.
But Warlick -- who grew up in Knoxville, played for Summitt from 1976-80 and has been an assistant coach for Tennessee since 1985 -- deserves this chance to be in charge. As emeritus, Summitt will have an advisory role, will be able to interact with players and recruits on campus and will sit behind the bench at games. Her presence is still very much desired at Tennessee, in whatever capacity her health allows, and this change allows for that.
Warlick deserved this opportunity, but now she has to adjust her mindset to really take advantage of it. Warlick always reminded people this season that Summitt was still the head coach, and it's a tribute to her loyalty that her own ego/ambition never, ever seemed to even exist.
But it needs to exist now. The lifeblood for any program is recruiting, and having Warlick firmly in charge is what Tennessee must have. In February, Tennessee's top commitment for the Class of 2013 -- Kaela Davis -- announced she was reopening her recruitment because of concerns over Summitt's health/future at Tennessee.
While some might bristle at that or think it's disrespectful, it's also the nature of the beast (recruiting) that constantly needs to be fed. Most of today's top recruits barely know what Tennessee did this past season, let alone in the entire 38 years of Summitt's astonishingly successful tenure. Kids are kids; they are about themselves and the future. To most teenagers, the past might mean a little, but not a lot.
Tennessee can and does sell its eight NCAA titles and 18 NCAA Final Four appearances, its large and passionate fan base, its track record for producing Olympians and pro players. Ultimately, though, most recruiting deals are closed by the head coach, and now the recruits know exactly who that will be: Warlick.
She will have to personally and philosophically adjust to that. She is no longer the first lieutenant; she is the captain. She has to think that way. Her touching deference to Summitt this season was 100 percent genuine, but now she is the boss.
That is a change, even for someone who has prepped for the role as long as Warlick has. She can't replicate Summitt's personality or larger-than-life aura. Nobody can. There will never be another Pat Summitt.
But Warlick has her own life story of goals, of hardships -- her father died when she was in high school and she had to grow up quickly -- and of dreams. Like Summitt, Warlick is a native of Tennessee, and her roots are sunk just as deeply into the state.
She's only six years younger than Summitt, so she experienced firsthand the considerable growth of the college game during her lifetime. Warlick has an understated but clever sense of humor. She has a very sound, strategic grasp of the sport and the way it has been taught at Tennessee.
Admittedly, Warlick does not have the famed "Summitt Stare." She does not have the same steely, blue-eyed visage of a woman whose farm background and inner drive propelled multiple generations of Lady Vols to push themselves much harder than they imagined they could just to please her. But nobody has that quality quite like Summitt did.
Warlick must be confident in her own way of doing things. With assistant Mickie DeMoss having left for the WNBA, Warlick can reshape her staff to some degree. It is her time to fully take charge.
There is no way any of this is easy. All practicality, reason and good judgment says this move had to happen. Emotionally, it's still heart-wrenching. Yet with the same grace and humility that has marked her entire career, Summitt steps into a different role.
Summitt defines an era of incredible breakthroughs and possibilities for women in the 1970s, the decade of Title IX's birth. Globally, women's sports still suffer the slings and arrows of opposition: from the extremes of those nations that still deny women participation to the belittling resentment born of fear that you still see right here in the United States.
Strong, powerful, confident women continue to scare some people, and it takes the strongest and most accomplished of those women to pound down the barriers and earn respect. Summitt has done that without seeming strident, without alienating anyone. She has been a hero to many and a revered figure to all.
Summitt will continue to be those things actively as long as her health allows. And even after we're all gone, her legacy always will keep her on that pedestal.
A friend whose mother has Alzheimer's told me that it's the illness of long goodbyes and anticipatory grief. As the late-afternoon sun turned into twilight on my drive through Tennessee last November, I really understood what she meant.
I was taking the same roads that Summitt had four decades earlier heading off to college. I was also just a bit north of the Tennessee town where I'd had my first job out of college in 1988.
I thought about those early days of beginning a career and how you can feel so alone, afraid and uncertain about the future. How every step forward gives you hope. How when someone immensely more powerful and accomplished than you gives you encouragement, it's as if they'd handed you gold.
I recalled how respectfully Summitt had treated me as a young reporter, just as she does with everyone who encounters her. How watching how she navigated success and fame with such humility was one of the most inspiring things I've witnessed in my life.
One thing, in particular, that Tennessee assistant Dean Lockwood had said that morning kept echoing in my mind.
"This disease is a reminder that, ultimately, all of us will not be what we once were," Lockwood said. "For everyone, things will change."
At first I felt a little embarrassed, even though I was alone in the car on a dark road, when tears started to leak from my eyes. After all, one thing that Summitt had insisted is that she didn't want any "pity parties."
But this wasn't about pity at all. Just as any tears that are shed today won't be. They will be about gratitude.