GAINESVILLE — When legendary Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt stunned the nation in August by announcing she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, her primary goal outside of her health was ensuring the upcoming season went on as normally as possible for her team.
"There's not going to be any pity party, and I'll make sure of that," she said at the time.
On Sunday, six months later, No. 10 Tennessee hosts Florida in the regular-season finale. It will be Senior Day, and there is growing speculation it could be Summitt's final home game after 38 seasons. The school expects so many fans, it plans to open the gates a half-hour earlier than usual.
Florida coach Amanda Butler, a Tennessee native who grew up admiring Summitt, empathizes with what Tennessee has had to endure.
"I can't, really, I cannot in my mind conceive what day to day is like for those guys," Butler said. "They are the team that everyone is looking at. She is the representative of our sport and thankfully because she has put all of us collectively in a spotlight that maybe wouldn't have happened as quickly if there hadn't been a Pat Summitt.
"So there's a tremendous amount of attention on everything that happens to them — good, bad, unfortunate or fantastic. A great credit goes to their staff. But to try for a second to go, 'What would that be like?' I probably would fold like a cheap suit."
Summitt, 59, has not folded. She has delegated many responsibilities to her staff but remains part of the daily operation and coached every game.
But there have been struggles.
The Vols have lost eight games this season, including three at home — the most in program history. They desperately want one more national title for Summitt, whose 1,091 victories are the most in NCAA history among men's and women's coaches.
And the seniors are trying not to become the first class to finish their careers without having been to a Final Four.
That's Summitt's legacy and her players' burden.
"I've been praying for them all season because I can't imagine what it's like to go through something like that," Florida senior guard Jordan Jones said.
In nearly every arena, there are reminders: fans with supportive signs and opposing players and fans wearing T-shirts throughout the season representing the SEC's "We Back Pat" campaign against Alzheimer's. How much of a toll has it taken on the Vols?
"I don't think you can know," Tennessee assistant coach Dean Lockwood said Friday. "It's one of those things we may not know until this is long past us. You know things are different, and you deal with it. You keep moving forward.
"In terms of how it has impacted our team, I think they are doing like in any situation where something deviates from the norm. But I think they keep moving forward because that's what we must do."
The Vols are 20-8 (11-4 SEC). For most programs, that would be considered thriving.
But by their lofty standards — based on Summitt's eight national championships and 29 NCAA Tournament appearances, Tennessee is in the midst of a tough season. An overtime loss Thursday night to Arkansas left them in second place in the SEC and Kentucky in the driver's seat for the title with a win Sunday. Tennessee is 0-6 in games when trailing at halftime.
Yet Lockwood said Summitt and the coaching staff remain optimistic mostly because of the makeup of the team.
"I think because of what's happened to them and what they've experienced here in their four years, they are a pretty resilient bunch," Lockwood said. "We're trying as best we can to not make it about them and try to take some of that (pressure) off of them.
"At some point, we just have to simply move past it and realize there are certain things that are beyond your control, and we've got to really focus on the things that are in our control."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected] Read her blog at tampabay.com/blogs/gators.
SEC tournament titles
National Coach of the year awards