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THE DAY BEFORE THE NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL IN TAMPA A REPORTER ASKED PAT SUMMITT IF SHE HAD THOUGHT ABOUT HOW SHE'LL REACT WHEN SHE REALIZES SHE HAS COACHED CANDACE PARKER AND FOUR SENIORS FOR THE LAST TIME. SUMMITT DIDN'T SEEM OVERLY CONCERNED ABOUT BEING STAGGERED BY EMOTION AT THE WRONG TIME. "We all say, Once a Lady Vol, always a Lady Vol," she said. "They'll come back, just like the others. They will always be a part of the family."
As I stood on the floor of the St. Pete Times Forum after Tennessee had vanquished Stanford for its eighth national championship, it struck me that that family is huge, tight-knit and perhaps the most underrated element of Tennessee's sustained success. I've witnessed the Lady Vols win half of those titles—the first in 1997—and I've seen a lot of the same people soaking up the confetti shower every time. There's Jenny Moshak, the Lady Vols' head athletic trainer for the last 19 years, checking on everyone's sore spots. (She made a strong case for Final Four MVP with her tireless work on Parker's recently dislocated left shoulder.) There's associate athletics director Debby Jennings, the program's institutional memory for the last 31 years, beaming like a proud parent. And over there, dispensing hugs and high fives, that's assistant Holly Warlick, who played for Summitt in the late '70s and has been coaching for her for the last 23 years. Clearly, it's not just Summitt and her parade of high school All-Americas who make Tennessee the premier program in women's basketball.
Katie Wynn, Summitt's administrative assistant of 27 years, thinks people stay loyal to the program because, well, the program gets in your blood. "It really is like a family here," says Wynn, whose many tasks include maintaining a database of contact information on the scores of players who have passed through the program. "We're like Mom and Dad here. If a former player needs something, we'll try to take care of it."
Jennings, who has won hundreds of awards for her work in media relations, is also something of a Lady Vols savant. Ask her an obscure question about, say, the 1980 team, and she'll answer that and tell you five related anecdotes. She knows everything because she has seen everything. Jennings started working for the Lady Vols soon after she graduated from Tennessee in '77. She thought a few times about going somewhere else, "but around 1985 I decided I liked where I am," she says. "It's the people. And it's hard to leave a place where the salaries are fantastic, you're working with the best people, you have the best facility, you have the best and brightest athletes, you have an athletic department that's in total support of every one of your efforts, you're playing in front of 14, 15 thousand people...."
The point is, life is pretty good in the embrace of the Lady Vols program, one of only two athletic departments in the country that is separate from the men's department. ( Texas is the other.) How else do you explain the continued presence of Warlick? She has had head-coaching offers, but she has turned them all down. "I want to be a head coach, but I don't want to go somewhere where you have to struggle," says Warlick, who played for Summitt from '76 through '80. "You have to have administrative support, and we've had it here. We take care of each other, and that's huge. Loyalty is so huge to our program. If you can keep assistants around for as long as I've been here, you're doing something right."
Moshak, "the best trainer in America," according to Parker, could presumably write her own ticket to the training and physical therapy situation of her dreams. Thing is, she's already there. Tennessee allowed her to start Team ENHANCE, which is doing pioneering work in mental and emotional wellness. "We're a very comprehensive sports medicine program," says Moshak. "And being separate, we can pay a lot of attention to the female student-athlete. You don't have to use the weight room at midnight, you don't have to wait to get taped because football is in there."
Moshak still works on players who graduated years ago. "I've started working on their families, too," she says. "Once a Lady Vol, always a Lady Vol."
If you still doubt that, consider this: In the spring members of Summitt's past teams, even two from the 1974 squad, volunteered to serve as practice fodder for the likes of Parker and Nicky Anosike. Now that's loyalty. Amazingly, there was no need for introductions. "Our current players know who these people are," says Jennings. "There's a great sense of who came before you here."
How many programs have players who yearn for the day they can reminisce with future players and swap coach stories? "I can't wait till I come back in 10 years, when I'm thirtysomething years old, telling stories about the Tennessee program," says Parker. She thinks about it because getting to know former players has been part of her experience at Tennessee. "It really is a sisterhood," she says. "We understand each other."
Of course the most visible manifestations of the loyalty the Lady Vols engender are all those orange-clad fans who follow the team wherever it plays. In 1977 a small booster club formed and soon after started selling season tickets, and it now has 12,000 season-ticket holders. The Lady Vols draw fantastically well on the road too: This year they had five regular-season road sellouts. I didn't actually make a count in Tampa, but given the prevailing orange vibe, I'd estimate that Lady Vols fans made up about 20,000 of the 21,655 in attendance. All the incessant winning doesn't hurt, but how necessary is it to keeping this one giant happy family together? Would the fans continue to flock if Tennessee didn't make regular trips to the Final Four? As long as Summitt, Warlick, Moshak, Jennings and Wynn are in Knoxville, we may never find out.