KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — As legendary coach Pat Summitt’s role with Tennessee seems to be diminishing, her 11th-ranked Lady Volunteers continue to struggle.
In a matter of eight days, they’ve lost twice in the Southeastern Conference, a prospect backed off her longtime commitment to the program and they’re out of the top 10 for the first time this season.
It’s been tough to watch – and not just for the fans.
“They let us down,” Summitt said of her team on her radio show after the Lady Vols’ 93-79 loss at Vanderbilt on Thursday night. “As coaches, we’re not happy and (the players are) not happy. At least they better not be happy because we got more basketball to play. But this one, man this one hurts. It really does.”
Summitt announced in August that she was facing a diagnosis of early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, after 37 seasons of coaching. The Hall of Fame coach said she would continue coaching as long as she was able to but would turn over more responsibility to her assistants.
Her decision to rely more on her assistants has become more and more evident as the season has gone on. The assistant coaches run most aspects of practice and associate head coach Holly Warlick takes the lead on the bench and in huddles during games while handling postgame news conferences.
“Pat is Pat. I’ll say this, she still gets up and has a voice when we need to make a point, and that’s what I love about her,” Warlick said after Tennessee beat Auburn on Sunday.
Though Summitt still gives referees or her players an earful in some games, she is completely removed from the team in others.
During a late huddle against South Carolina on Feb. 2 and with the game still in contention, Summitt stepped back as her team huddled without her. The Lady Vols ended up losing 64-60 as the Gamecocks got their first-ever victory in Knoxville.
Against Vanderbilt with a late tipoff, Summitt sat on the bench while her Lady Vols were manhandled on the boards, the type of poor play that in the past brought the coach to her feet with her withering glare forcing them to play better.
With each loss, Summitt is being watched even more closely during games.
Fans debated on Friday on the Knoxville News Sentinel’s website whether it was time for Summitt to retire. Kaela Davis, a high school junior from Buford, Ga., had been committed to playing at Tennessee for several years and announced last week she was looking at other colleges.
Davis’ parents did not respond to a request by The Associated Press seeking comment about the decision, but her mother, Kendra Davis, told ESPN.com she is reconsidering her decision because of concern over Summitt’s future with Tennessee.
“She’s not washing her hands (of Tennessee) or decommitting,” Kendra Davis told ESPN. “Nobody could have foreseen (Summitt’s illness), nor could the effects be foreseen.”
Summitt’s colleagues within women’s basketball have honored her request from the beginning of the season to keep the focus on basketball rather than her or her illness. Still, it’s been hard for her friends to watch her confront her condition.
“It’s been real tough on coach Summitt I know, so I hate to talk about how tough it’s been on me because that takes the focus off of Pat,” said Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell, who spent the 1999-2000 season as a Tennessee graduate assistant. “But I think all of us who are close to her or all of us who have had significant contributions made to our lives by her are struggling with this situation.”
The Lady Vols (17-7, 8-3) have struggled in record fashion this season. They scored the fewest points in program history in what was the second-largest margin of defeat in a 72-44 pounding at No. 2 Notre Dame on Jan. 23. Stanford’s Nnemkadi Ogwumike dropped 42 points on Tennessee on Dec. 20 – the second most by a player.
And Vanderbilt’s 93 points on Thursday were the most the program has ever scored against the Lady Vols.
In those losses, Tennessee has struggled with the style of play that Summitt made the hallmark of her program. The coach always has preached defense and rebounding wins national championships, and Summitt has eight to back her approach.
“Until these guys understand or these young ladies understand the importance of those two things, we’re going to continue down this road of going up and down,” Warlick said.
The road continues Monday night when Tennessee hosts No. 7 Kentucky (21-3, 10-1). Before the Lady Vols’ loss to the Commodores, the game was shaping up to be a contest for control of the SEC. Now the Wildcats are back in control of their own destiny, even as they come off a 61-51 loss at LSU.
Kentucky beat Tennessee 61-60 in Lexington on Jan. 12, and junior guard A’dia Mathies, who hit the winning shot, knows just how much another win against the Lady Vols would mean for the program.
“Being at the top and knowing Tennessee is usually at the top is a great feeling. It’s kind of like you’ve finally arrived, but we haven't really, because if we lose the next ones, we won’t get the SEC championship,” she said.
The Lady Vols know their own chance to win any kind of championship this year could be slipping away. The pressure has been on Tennessee to return to the Final Four, a spot they haven't been in since 2008, but it won't happen without an attitude adjustment.
“We have to have discipline,” sophomore guard Meighan Simmons said. “We can’t play well one game and then come out and not play at all (the next).”