Deep down, Holly Warlick was hurting.
Her mentor and beloved friend, Pat Summitt, had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.
But Warlick, reflecting her boss, knew she had to put on her strong face. Summitt wasn’t going to let the crippling disease keep her from coaching the Tennessee women’s basketball team. So Warlick, the Lady Vols’ associate head coach, pushed back the pain even though it was building inside.
“Upsetting? Absolutely, because it is the unknown,” Warlick said. “It is the unknown for her. Being upset for myself and then kind of pulling myself together, and going, as Pat said, ‘It isn’t a pity party’ and she wouldn’t want it to be that way. She wants to keep her life, on a daily basis, as normal as possible. That is what I try to do. ... I think first and foremost my whole attention this year is making sure Pat is taken care of and we all take care of her and make it easy for her.”
The Lady Vols aren’t the only ones rallying around Summitt.
The Southeastern Conference kicked off its “We Back Pat” Week on Sunday as No. 6 Tennessee hosted No. 25 Vanderbilt. The weeklong initiative, which runs through next Sunday, includes both men’s and women’s basketball games in the SEC.
As league schools host games all week, an extra focus will be put on raising awareness for the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund. The foundation, launched in November, was established to raise money for finding a cure for Alzheimer’s.
“Naturally, we back Pat in every facet, whether it is personally or professionally,” Ole Miss coach Renee Ladner said. “She means so much to me as an individual. Just to see her to go through this with such courage and determination is in itself something we can all be proud of.”
During warm-ups, SEC teams also will wear “We Back Pat” shooting shirts. Vanderbilt plans to don the apparel, along with purple — the supporting color of Alzheimer’s disease — shoelaces at its women’s basketball home game against South Carolina at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday. Coincidentally, the Commodores “Jam the Gym” promotion, in which tickets are only $1, is also that day.
Through its merchandise sales, the Pat Summitt Foundation has already generated more than $150,000 toward research.
“It has been amazing,” said Summitt, who is the all-time winningest college basketball coach with 1,083 victories. “It has really touched me in a positive way and my staff. It just speaks volumes to what everyone is telling me all the time, ‘We are going to back you.’ it just touches my heart and means a lot to me and my son Tyler and to our staff.”
In her 38th season at UT, the 59-year-old Summitt has had to reorganize her responsibilities and priorities due to the illness.
Her assistants are handling more of the in-game coaching responsibilities as well as organizing scouting reports. Plus, Summitt is spending less time in the office.
“After 38 years here, I think she has earned the right to do that,” Warlick said. “We try to make it as easy as possible for her. I think less stress for her is a tremendous help on her health.”
Summitt’s relinquished many of her media responsibilities as well.
She no longer takes one-on-one media requests. Warlick is stepping to the microphone during postgame press conferences. Last week, when Summitt fielded questions during a conference call, Warlick was right there next to her.
“Holly has been great,” Summitt said. “She has just been my rock.”
Warlick was one of Summitt’s first players, an All-American point guard from 1976-80, and is in five Halls of Fame as either a player or coach. In her 27th season as a UT assistant, she laughed at the idea that Summitt gladly offered up her chances to speak with reporters.
“We want to try to keep things as simple and stress-free as possible,” she said. “I think she wanted me to have an opportunity. I hit it head on, and it has been fun. It is talking basketball. When you are involved with your team every day, it shouldn’t be difficult.”
To say that Summitt is softening up, however, would be a huge mistake.
That infamous stare and stern look are still there. She doesn’t want sympathy, and neither do her players.
Heading into last Thursday’s game at No. 9 Kentucky, the Lady Vols were 12-3 and still very much the favorite to capture the SEC title.
“I think it has motivated them,” Summitt said. “They are very focused every day in practice. I don’t think it is a pity party for any of us. We’re just looking forward to continuing to play hard and hopefully cut down some nets.”
Summitt longs for the ninth national championship and the program’s first since 2008. When she publicly announced the diagnosis last August, she said she planned to keep coaching “as long as the good Lord is willing.”
That is exactly what she and her staff are telling recruits.
“She is still the head coach. Her plan is to still be here,” Warlick said. “We’re still working for Pat Summitt. It is not different except a different person is sending out the message. This is still her program, her team, and we still work for her. We’re trying on a daily basis to make sure that we live up to her expectations as well as our players’.
“When we are recruiting, we are selling this program. We’re selling what Pat Summitt has built. That has not changed.”