KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Pat Summitt is early.
That should come as no surprise, should it? Summitt has missed only two practices for the Tennessee Lady Vols so far this season: once to visit her son, Tyler, who is now an assistant coach for the Marquette women, and the other time to receive an award on behalf of her foundation. On both occasions, Summitt got the OK in advance from new Lady Vols head coach Holly Warlick, who wanted to say, "Pat, you don't need my permission."
For anything, really.
When Summitt, who is now head coach emeritus, emerges in the far corner of Thompson-Boling Arena a little bit before noon last Friday, the start of practice is still an hour away. She cuts across the hardwood and disappears through the tunnel that leads to the locker room. Only a few seconds pass between her entrance and exit, and yet somehow she has left a trail of questions in her wake: Who are the Lady Vols without Pat Summitt at the wheel? How are they different? How are they the same? And can they regain their old dominance?
We begin gathering answers as the players jog out from the film room an hour later. The coaches, including Summitt, walk behind them, eating ice cream -- or, more specifically, the final few bites of their cones. Summitt loves ice cream, and she makes sure it's available at every pregame meal, even though the players can't touch the stuff. "Sometimes, just joking, we pretend like we're trying to sneak to get some," says sophomore forward Cierra Burdick, feigning indignity at the injustice. "But it would never work. They don't allow us sweets before games."
So that's one rule: Ice cream is for coaches, not players.
There are more important directives, obviously -- dozens and dozens of rules that serve as a blueprint for the survival, and success, of these young athletes, to help them stay inside the lines.
Arrive five minutes early. Run through the baseline on drills. Attend every class. Silence your cell phones.
Such commandments are hardly unique to Tennessee; any decent program in the country is built upon a similar foundation. What separates one school from the next are the traditions and the people who bring it all to life. And when it comes to explaining how a program goes about creating and fostering a distinct culture year in and year out, where better to start than Tennessee, the most tradition-rich program in women's college basketball?
Of course, it's not just history that makes this team interesting. The Lady Vols are also in transition, from Summitt to Warlick, from an iconic coach to her long-time assistant, from a past thick with success to a future that came faster than anyone expected -- or wanted, after Summitt revealed in August 2011 that she was battling early-onset dementia.
Perhaps it was to be expected that a young Tennessee squad would get off to a shaky start this season. But the Lady Vols seem to be finding themselves lately, improving their record to 6-1 with a 102-57 thumping of North Carolina last Sunday and checking in at No. 14 in the latest Associated Press Top 25.
So what makes Tennessee, well … Tennessee? Never has that question been more intriguing.
The fabric of Tennessee
Andraya Carter is a freshman guard from Georgia. She's fast, bright, and one day hopes to work on TV, just like former Tennessee guard Kara Lawson, who is a basketball analyst for ESPN. When Carter was on her recruiting visit to Knoxville last year, she watched practice from the sideline. At the end, the players motioned for her to join them in their final huddle. Carter walked out to center court and just kind of stood there, waiting. Everyone looked at her askance.
"Draya, touch your feet," they said, pointing down. "We all have to be touching."
"Like this," the player next to her demonstrated, pinning the side of her sneaker against Carter's, as if seeing who had the bigger foot.
In recalling the moment now, Carter also explains its significance. "To make it work, the circle has to be symmetrical," she says. "Like we're all together, even the coaches."
On this particular day, Carter jogs into the circle before practice and lines up her feet, first with the player on her right, then with the one on her left. Once she's set, a hand touches her shoulder. Carter turns, then steps back to allow Summitt, who has just finished her ice cream cone, into the circle. The two touch feet as Carter wraps her arm around Summitt and whispers something into the coach's ear.
This is one tradition Warlick would never abandon. It started one season during the late 1990s, when Summitt brought in a sports psychologist to help the team, a woman who suggested that this small gesture -- the team standing in a circle -- serves as a tangible representation of connectedness. Ever since, Summitt's squads have stood this way, foot pinned to foot, at the beginning and end of every practice and during the national anthem before every game.
The players take a kind of joy in explaining the ritual to recruits who find themselves in the team huddle for the first time. So, this is how we do it here at Tennessee …
But while the circle remains the same, some other things have changed.
There's an old saying, one that college coaches especially enjoy repeating: "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard." And to say that Summitt was meticulous and demanding as a coach is an understatement. Warlick admits, though, that the Lady Vols didn't live up to their own standard in recent seasons. "We let the players get away with a lot of stuff the last few years," she says. "And this year, we're holding them accountable."
Some of the rules Warlick has instituted are simple: Headphones can't be seen in public; players must meet with a nutritionist once a week; the coaching staff now eats with the team on the road. "We've changed some things because the past couple of years it felt like the players didn't really know the coaches, off the court," Warlick says.
Other adjustments were harder and initially met with resistance. Most notably, Warlick has completely revamped the team's conditioning test. For years, Tennessee players were required to complete five suicide drills in five minutes to prove they were in shape. This season, however, Warlick upped the ante to 20 suicides in 20 minutes -- which is the difference between being a little out of breath and being worried you'll pass out from exhaustion. "We needed to push them to the brink, where they didn't think they could do it anymore," Warlick says.
Some of the older players, those who had grown accustomed to doing things a certain way, bucked the new system. They would say, "That's not how we did it last year." To which Warlick would respond, "Well, it's how we're doing it now."
Eventually, the grumbling gave way to gratitude. "I think it's good, because Holly wants to put coals back on the fire," says senior wing Taber Spani. "She wants to rekindle everybody's energy, while also making her own statement. 'OK, yes, I'm following Pat Summitt, and we're holding onto everything, but also I'm Holly, and I want to do things a little differently.' Which is totally understandable and what you would expect from a new coach."
The Lady Vols lost their first game of the season, at Chattanooga on Nov. 9, which also happened to be the first game of a weekend road trip that ended at Georgia Tech two days later. Per team policy (pre-dating this season), the coaches collected each player's cell phone the night before the Chattanooga game, at 11 p.m. Normally, they would redistribute the phones after the game. Except, of course, if that game ends with a loss to an unranked team, in which case the phones are held until after the next victory -- 48 hours later.
"Fifty-three messages," says sophomore guard Ariel Massengale. "That's how many I had on my phone when I finally got it back. If you wanted to call your parents or check in, you'd have to ask Holly or one of the other coaches to borrow their phones. But after a loss, you don't really want to be asking that, do you?"
There is zero hint of resentment in Massengale's voice, and ditto for her teammates. Instead, the players relay the program's rules and regulations with something akin to pride, sharing stories that will likely, years from now, become lore -- another stitch in the fabric that is Tennessee.
Warlick seems to hold her team steady without holding it still.
Summitt sits on the scorer's table throughout practice. She does not walk onto the court. Twice she yells out "Nice job" after a particularly well-run play, but that is the extent of her verbal contribution. Many times, though, Warlick comes over and leans into Summitt, giving her a hug, smiling, exchanging a few words. The players do the same throughout the session. Some just stand near Summitt for a short stretch of time, rest a hand on her shoulder, saying nothing. After a minute, they race back onto the court re-energized, as if through osmosis Summitt has told them precisely what to do.
After practice, Tennessee's new director of basketball operations, Michael Beaumont, walks to the baseline and sits under the hoop. He plugs his iPhone into the arena's speaker system and begins playing snippets of the songs in his playlist. At various points throughout the next half hour, as they finish their extra shooting, the players wander over to where Beaumont is sitting and choose a song they would like to hear.
When almost everyone else is gone, Warlick does the same. She sits on the padded black base of the basket and scans the musical selections. She finds one, and a few seconds later, ABBA's "Take a Chance on Me" is piping through the arena.
Feels like an appropriate choice.