Iremember the first time Pat Summitt ever watched me play basketball.
I was a senior in high school — a small, quick point guard from the Knoxville area — and Pat was the new Tennessee Lady Vols head coach. It was 1975. She was only six years older than me.
“You’ve got to come and see this girl play,” someone had told her. There wasn’t much recruiting back then — not like there is today. A coach would show up, and if they liked what they saw, that was it.
Pat didn’t like what she saw.
I didn’t even finish the game — I sprained my ankle real bad.
She left the gym, and I never heard from her again.
It’s a good thing I was fast. I ran track in high school as well, and won the state championship in the 400 (it was yards back then, not meters). My speed got me the scholarship to Tennessee.
But while running came naturally to me, it wasn’t what I loved — basketball was. I’d played since I was 10. My dad, Bill, who was a coach, taught me how to dribble. I’d run dribbling drills around chairs, and play with my older brother and our neighbors in the street for as long as it was light outside.
Back then, girls weren’t allowed to play full-court basketball — just half-court, three-on-three. It was thought that girls’ bodies couldn’t handle the strain and physicality of full-court basketball. But I knew otherwise. I knew that I could handle it, and that playing with the boys only made me tougher, and made me better. My dad knew it, too. He encouraged it.
I tried to walk on to the basketball team my freshman year before my track career even started. I hadn’t seen Pat since I had blown it in high school. I’d met some of her players, though, and asked about her — asked what to expect.
Every single player said the same thing. Not that I cared — I just wanted to play. And, I figured, at least I was in shape. How bad could it be?
I walked into the gym on the first day of tryouts. Does she remember me? I thought. Nope, no recognition. Pat put us on the line and blew her whistle.
Suicides. A lot of suicides. Then she put 30 minutes on the clock for a continuous four-on-two fast break.
And that was just the warmup.
“That woman is crazy,” I said to myself after walking out of the gym that day. “What am I getting myself into?”
But I went back the next day, and the day after that. She had that way about her. She’d break you down … and yet you’d show up the next day. You wanted to prove to her that you could take it. It took me years to realize that she didn’t care about players proving it to her.
She cared about players proving it to themselves.
I made the team.
“You didn’t even recruit her,” people would say to Pat years later.
“Yeah, I recruited her,” Pat would deadpan. “She wasn’t very good.”
She had one drill in practice that she named after me. “This is a Holly day!” she’d yell. Everyone would line up and run suicides, while I had to make 10 layups in a row, sprinting from one end of the court to the other. I was notorious for missing layups because I was too fast — I’d run full speed and my momentum would carry me too far under the basket. I’d make eight in a row and then miss. Every single one of us would have to start over again. It was brutal.
She was brutal.
But she was building us. She was also building her own legacy, though it probably didn’t feel like that at the time. She made $250 a month to coach, recruit, wash our uniforms and drive the team van. (She had a habit of multitasking behind the wheel generally: speeding, applying mascara and — when cellphones became a thing — talking on the phone.) She was also fighting for equal opportunities for women’s basketball — not just our program — at every turn. She demanded the best from people and her players. It was the only way she knew, and it worked. Wins and championships followed.
In 1985, a few years after I graduated, I got a call from Pat. In that time, I’d played professionally in the Women’s Professional Basketball League for a year, and was working at the University of Nebraska as an assistant coach.
“Would you be interested in coming here to coach?” she asked me.
“I can be there in 18 hours,” I said.
The coaching dynamic between us — head coach and assistant — wasn’t all that different from the dynamic between us when I was a player and she was my coach. As a player, Pat pushed me harder than others because she knew I could take it. She would give me the hardest defensive assignments, or yell at me a little louder than she would at everybody else. When I became her assistant, she kept challenging me. Our basketball philosophy was the same — how could it not be? But she knew when, how and just how far to push to me.
She called me Warlick. I called her Summitt.
Eventually, through all the time we spent together, especially traveling to road games or going on recruiting trips, that dynamic shifted to something more like friendship. Everyone knows about Pat’s icy stare and tough persona, but she was also a loving matriarch with a quick wit. She was someone you always wanted to be around because you never knew what was going to come out of her mouth or happen next.
Like, say, accidentally ending up in a strip club.
We were just on a recruiting trip, and our flight landed in Clarksville, Tennessee, where Pat grew up. A friend of hers picked us up at the airport.
“I’m not ready to go home yet,” Pat said. “Let’s go have a drink.”
So we go have a drink. We ride along, and eventually pull up to this dive bar. There are a couple of pool tables just inside the entrance, and a tiny four-seat bar over near the corner. Nobody is there, which is great — because at this point, Pat Summitt could go very few places, let alone a bar in Clarksville, without being recognized.
We’re enjoying our drinks and chatting up the bartender when a couple of people come up to us to say hi. Then another couple of people walk over to the bar. Now, we’ve gone from the four of us to about eight or 10 people. And I’m sitting there, thinking, Where did you all come from? Because we haven’t seen anyone walk through the front door.
“Can I buy you guys a drink?” I hear a woman ask.
I turn to her and start up a conversation. “What do you do?” I ask.
“I work here,” she replies.
“Where?!” I’m confused (and a little nervous).
She takes me over to a room just off in the corner. The music is booming, the lights are flashing.
I see poles.
Oh, my God, I think. She’s a pole dancer. We’re in a strip club.
Meanwhile, Pat’s off having a good time, chatting up the locals. I walk over to her.
“Hey, Summitt,” I say. “Are you having a good time here?”
“Yeah, I love it here!”
“Well, do you need to go to the restroom? ‘Cause I think you need to go to the restroom.” She looks at me all confused-like.
I grab her arm and take her around the corner.
“Oh, my G—”
Her mouth drops. Probably one of the few times in my life I ever saw Pat look surprised.
We go back to the bar, finish our drinks and say goodbye to our new friends.
I can imagine the headlines already: PAT SUMMITT GOES TO STRIP CLUB. (She would’ve laughed at that.)
It was a really great day.
I was the buffer between Pat and the players.
I’m not sure how it got started, but that’s how it worked: She’d chew them out, and I’d remind them that they were O.K. I “survived” Pat myself. Everyone survives.
Our players — they were just kids — would come in knowing that she was going to be tough. But they still didn’t really know. Not until they got here. So, that was my role: to listen and reassure. Over time, I slowly started to lead some practices, handle scouting and sit in on meetings with parents.
And when Pat got sick, I slowly started to take the lead on everything.
She was suffering from dementia before any of us knew it. We all knew something was wrong, but we just covered for her. It was Pat Summitt, you know? No one ever asked. But when she was diagnosed in 2011, we weren’t surprised. She told the staff one night, not long before the news broke, on the back porch at her house. We sat quietly for a minute after that before she cut through the silence:
“Now, I can drink all I want because I won’t remember,” she said.
That’s Pat, for you. One of the worst days of our lives, and there she was, cracking jokes.
I remember being in the locker room with Pat later that season. Her illness had been announced publicly, and as a coaching staff, we were just trying to keep our focus on the game. I was going to be acting as head coach that night.
“What do you want to see?” I asked Pat. “Do you want to see a press?”
“I want to see you not sweat tonight,” she said. “I’m gonna be sittin’ beside you, and you sweat so much.”
We laughed our way through it.
Together, over time, Pat and I talked about the transition of me becoming the head coach quite a bit. But the truth is … she was planning on being here forever. I was planning on it, too.
I inherited a lot. How do you fill those shoes? Pat Summitt is a basketball icon who not only built a championship program at Tennessee — but she also made it known the world over. She set the standard for other programs. She created opportunities for women when there had been none before, and her monumental influence on the game of basketball made little girls all over the world — little girls who may never have seen the Lady Vols play — feel seen and strong.
The expectation for the Lady Vols is to win a championship. It’s a wonderful burden — to be known and celebrated for greatness, but to be disappointed in anything that falls short of another championship banner. I wouldn’t be truthful if I said it’s not a challenge. I’ve had to grow more in the last five years than the 25 plus that came before.
Someone was always going to have to follow Pat.
Pat Summitt is a mountain. We’re all standing in her shadow.
I visited her often after she stepped down. We’d take rides on her boat or just spend time on the beach. Pat loved the beach. We’d talk, but rarely about basketball. Just … life. Her health was declining and I was traveling more, so when I couldn’t visit, I’d call.
“Pat, turn to channel 25 — so-and-so is playing,” I’d tell her. Or, I’d ask, “Hey, Pat, what are you up to?”
“You know I’m not doing anything,” she’d say.
She always made me laugh.
Our conversations got more difficult as the years passed. She didn’t know she was struggling, but I could see it grow. When people who hadn’t seen her in a while would visit, I could see the shock on their faces. Pat Summitt was supposed to be invincible.
Last June, I’d gotten a call saying she was in bad condition. I went to the hospice where she was staying. Nikki Fargas and Mickie DeMoss were there — both former assistants — and we sat in Pat’s room while she lay quietly. I stepped out for a bit while Nikki and Mickie were telling old stories, laughing up a riot.
When I came back, there was Pat, sitting up straight while those two were laughing their way through the past. I walked over to the side of her bed and listened. Pat grabbed my shirt and pulled me close to her.
“Pat, you know I love you,” I said.
She’d been hanging on for so many people. Her whole life was about other people.
“You gotta let go,” I said.
That’s one of the last things I remember — her gripping my shirt, pulling me close … and letting me go.
She knew what was coming.
People say grief is like the ocean — that it comes in waves. But waves is too soft of a description. It feels more like lightning. Sometimes, I’ll be driving somewhere and suddenly be struck, crying on my way to the grocery. Grief splits you open. I swear you spend your whole life trying to sew yourself back up.
I see her statue every day just outside of our facility. Our court is named after her. There’s an empty chair on our bench in her memory. I’m confronted by her loss — personally and professionally — in so many visceral ways. On some level, it’s comforting. I’m glad she’s still around. She’s the voice in my head.
Pat’s presence when she was alive was so big that the void she left was inevitably going to be vast. As the Lady Vols’ head coach, I am trying now to continue her legacy but when I’m not on the sideline — when I go home and sit with everything — I’m just someone who lost their best friend.
I carry the weight of that loss, and the weight of the program. But I’ll do that every day with gratitude for her life and all that she imparted. And I’ll do it with pride for this team and program, which I love with every fiber of my being.
I want to make a difference in these kids’ lives — because that’s what Pat made in mine.