That figures to be a regular occurrence.
Summitt, 60, stepped down as Tennessee’s coach in April after leading the Lady Vols to eight national titles and 18 Final Four appearances. Summitt, who announced last year she has early-onset dementia, remains on staff as head coach emeritus and joined new coach Holly Warlick at Sunday’s workout.
Warlick said she expects to have Summitt at every practice.
“Just seeing (Summitt) makes me smile,” senior guard Taber Spani said. “The other day, I talked to her for like 30 minutes with her dogs in the office, just talking about life, basketball and whatever. That’s amazing, to see her dedication and how much she wants to be here.”
Sunday’s practice followed a tumultuous week full of questions involving the circumstances that led to the end of Summitt’s 38-year tenure.
According to an affidavit released Wednesday as part of former Lady Vols media director Debby Jennings’ lawsuit against Tennessee and athletic director Dave Hart, Summitt said Hart told her before the 2012 NCAA tournament that she wouldn’t return as coach this season. Summitt said in the affidavit that Hart later told her she had misinterpreted his comments.
Summitt, whose 1,098 wins are the most of any men’s or women’s basketball coach in history, issued a statement Friday saying she never felt forced out by the university and that she chose to step down on her own. Summitt said she released the statement to clear up the “misunderstandings” created by her comments in the affidavit.
“I’m responsible for this team, so I haven’t even addressed (the suit),” said Warlick, an assistant on Summitt’s staff for 27 seasons. “It’s for the courts and outside the basketball court to decide. I’ve been focusing on recruiting and focusing on this team.”
After such a difficult week, the Lady Vols were eager for the opening day of practice to return the focus to the upcoming season.
“The most important thing is getting these 11 people and these coaches on the same page and ready to go for Nov. 1,” Spani said in reference to the Lady Vols’ exhibition opener against Carson-Newman. “That’s what we’re focusing on. Yes, there’s a lot of stuff going around, but Coach Summitt, Coach Warlick, all of us, everyone’s invested in this team and this moment. We’re not looking at anything else.”
While Summitt’s appearance gave Sunday’s practice a familiar feel, plenty of change surrounds this team.
Tennessee doesn’t return a single player who started an NCAA tournament game last season during the Lady Vols’ run to a regional final. Junior guard Meighan Simmons, sophomore guard Ariel Massengale and Spani each started at least 15 games last season as the Lady Vols finished 27-9.
Spani and guard Kamiko Williams are Tennessee’s only seniors. Simmons is the lone junior on a roster that includes four freshmen and one junior-college transfer.
Warlick expects all the newcomers to contribute this season as the Lady Vols adopt a quicker pace. Tennessee signaled the switch to this approach Sunday as they emphasized rebounding, defense and pushing the ball up the floor.
“Our half-court offense may suffer early and may struggle a little bit, but we want to get them comfortable with getting the ball, going and keeping a fast tempo,” Warlick said. “That’s what we tried to establish today.”
Tennessee worked out for three hours Sunday in an attempt to strengthen its conditioning. Spani and Massengale called it one of the hardest practices of their careers.
“It was very fast-paced, high-intensity,” Massengale said. “If that’s the way we’re going to play this year, that’s how we’re going to have to practice.”
Warlick said she’s utilizing the uptempo style to capitalize on her team’s strengths. The Lady Vols are counting on athleticism and togetherness to make up for their inexperience as they attempt to return to the Final Four for the first time since their 2008 national championship.
“We really have a good camaraderie around us, a really good close-knit feel right now,” Warlick said. “I love that. I haven’t felt that in a long time, and I think it’s well-needed for this basketball team.”