STARKVILLE — What do you do when the memories fade but the faces remain? Pat Summitt mimicked jump shots.
Seated across from Summitt and alongside longtime Tennessee assistant coaches Holly Warlick and Mickie DeMoss, former Volunteer and current LSU head coach Nikki Fargas looked into the piercing blue eyes of her former coach. Summitt’s memories were in there, somewhere, locked away by early-onset dementia that brought an abrupt end to her coaching career. But as Fargas, Warlick and DeMoss sat with the legendary figure in her final days in the fall of 2016, trading stories of years past through laughter and joy, there was a flash, a spark. Something clicked.
While Warlick and DeMoss traded jabs with Fargas over her first game against Stanford in November of 1990, Summitt lifted her hands from her chair and motioned as if she was shooting a basketball. One. Final. Shot.
“It was just very innocent, very heartfelt, very emotional,” Fargas said, her tone growing more somber with each word. “But a very loving moment for all of us to be with her.”
Five years since Summitt’s death due to complications related to Alzheimer’s disease, four of Summitt’s former players — Nikki McCray-Penson (Mississippi State), Kyra Elzy (Kentucky), Kellie Harper (Tennessee) and Fargas — are head coaches in the Southeastern Conference. Combined, they boast a 567-281 record, a mark dwarfed by Summitt’s 1,098-208 career mark.
But as players grow younger, Summitt’s former understudies grow older and the personal connections to the legendary coach grow fewer and further between, it’s this quartet that carries on their former coach’s legacy in the conference she dominated for decades.
In McCray-Penson, Elzy, Harper and Fargas, a piece of Pat remains.
“We would not have gone into this profession if we did not love our time at Tennessee,” Harper told The Dispatch. “And I think that again speaks volumes to Pat and how she coached us.”
Stepping onto the floor at Thompson-Boling Arena in March 2005, Harper received raucous applause.
After leading Western Carolina to an 18-14 record and the program’s first NCAA tournament berth in her first season as a head coach, Harper and the Catamounts drew Tennessee in their first round game.
Just as Harper neared the court following her ovation, the crowd’s roar shifted to full-on pandemonium. Looking over her shoulder, she saw another woman exiting the tunnel and entering the playing area. It was Summitt.
“Oh, yes,” Harper thought at the time. “You’re not there yet.”
Summit’s disciples have grown larger in number with time. Over the past 45 years, 63 former Volunteers have coached at the high school, collegiate or professional levels of women’s basketball. Twenty-four of those players are still coaching. Twenty-three played for Summitt.
Harper and Fargas have led their own programs for more than a decade. McCray-Penson got a later start, playing 10 years of professional ball after her time at Tennessee and working another nine years as an assistant under Dawn Staley at South Carolina.
Elzy also spent more than a decade as an assistant coach at varying stops — including as Warlick’s assistant head coach at Tennessee after Summitt retired — and is in her first season as a head coach at any level.
While their routes to SEC head coaching posts varied, each carries bits and pieces of the wisdom imparted by their former head coach.
In McCray-Penson, it’s the care and understanding of players she’s carried from South Carolina, Old Dominion and now, more recently, at MSU. Harper and Elzy are stern and hard nosed along the sideline, as their ex-bench boss once was. Fargas, who played for and coached alongside Summitt first as a graduate assistant and later as a full-time assistant, carries a mix of it all.
Together, the connections, conversations and anecdotes weave a tapestry of the woman Summitt was.
“I always joke that if I could be half the woman and half the coach that she was, then I’ll be in business,” Elzy said.
To understand what’s behind Summitt’s SEC head coaching quartet is to fully recognize her legacy in the state of Tennessee.
In Harper’s hometown of Sparta, it was as if the Lord himself had descended on their community of just over 4,900 people when Summitt arrived to recruit their local point guard. Fargas recalls the red Mercedes-Benz Summitt whipped the 25 miles from Knoxville to nearby Oak Ridge for her home visit catching everyone’s attention.
After games at Thompson-Boling Arena, fans clambered around the court for a piece of their head coach. Summitt signed autographs and traded small talk. She was no politician, but she shook more hands than most.
“We were with a rock star,” Harper explained. “… I remember assistant coach Mickie DeMoss calling it ‘Beatlemania.'”
Inside the Volunteers’ practice facilities, Summitt was understanding but iron-fisted. There was no coddling or hand-holding, no talking back or discussions. Players were afforded two responses when confronted by their head coach: “rebound” or “two points” — the first reserved for mistakes, the second after making a play.
Playing for Summitt meant respecting her process. For what on the outside might seem dictatorial, was a system built on palinoia.
While Fargas and her teammates lined up on the track for their usual 6 a.m. 400-meter sprints in September of 1990, Summitt, then pregnant with her son, Tyler, was noticeably absent. Players knew the routine well enough by then. Each position group had a time it must hit on each of seven sprints around the track.
Three laps into that morning’s workout, the team was informed Tyler had been born.
Fargas and the rest of the squad discussed leaving early to meet Summitt and her newborn son at the hospital. Then-Tennessee athletic trainer Jenny Moshak stepped in.
“No,” Moshak said. “Pat Summitt said you guys will not leave this workout until it’s finished.”
There were, of course, growing pains that came with learning Summitt. McCray-Penson struggled managing her time early in her freshman year. Sans cell phones during the early 1990s, Summitt grew increasingly annoyed at her tardiness. Summitt, then in her 18th year at Tennessee, enlisted the help of McCray-Penson’s aunt, who got her a watch to ensure she always knew what time it was.
“I figured it out, because I didn’t want to end up in her office too much,” McCray-Penson said through a laugh. “I didn’t want her to send me back home either.”
But for what Summitt encouraged on court, there was a softer, more endearing side to the rigid head coach. McCray-Penson and Fargas both fondly recalled the team meals at Summitt’s house, where the Volunteers became honorary parts of her family.
There was a camaraderie in the girls’ shared struggle during practices, workouts and games, sure. But deep down, behind the glaring blue eyes and famed scowl, Summit’s players knew she cared.
“We look out for each other,” Elzy said in reference to Summitt’s former players. “We encourage each other. We challenge each other. That is the culture that Coach Summitt built at the University of Tennessee, and it is truly an honor to carry her legacy.”
Standing along the sidelines amid Western Carolina’s NCAA tournament defeat at Tennessee, Harper took a momentary pause from the action.
Glancing down the sideline, she turned to her side and saw Summitt barking orders from the Volunteer bench. Harper wasn’t Summitt’s equal in resume, and few ever will be, but for a brief moment she felt a fierce sense of belonging.
“That was a pretty powerful moment,” Harper said, briefly pausing. “Just to know that we were now peers.”
Pat Summitt’s years on earth were cut unjustly short. Yet as the sport carries on, her spirit endures in the women who knew her, particularly among those currently employed in the SEC.
“We Back Pat” Week has become an annual staple of SEC play that honors her legacy and raises money for Alzheimer’s research. During MSU’s game against Alabama on Jan. 14 that honored Summitt, the team surprised McCray-Penson with warmup shirts pressed with a photo of her and her former coach hugging during one of her two Olympics appearances.
Surprised by the gesture amid an already emotional week, McCray-Penson got a semblance of closure from the image. In her, Summitt lives on. But to her players, the shirt represented a recognition of what once was and a notion that Summitt’s legacy will endure.
“It’s like, man, you miss her and you wish you could just call her and talk to her,” McCray-Penson said. “Because she would tell you what’s going on, what you need to be doing.”
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.
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