The support for Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt poured in Tuesday, so much so that Barbara Dooley, the mother of Vols football coach Derek Dooley said she was sitting down to write a card instead of trying to reach the Lady Vols basketball coach by phone.
“I am going to send her a note because I know she surely doesn’t want to answer the phone,” said Dooley, a survivor of breast cancer who handled her own medical ordeal with determination.
Dooley and Summitt met last May at a luncheon and immediately became friends, a union forged by their Southern roots and sense of humor.
Former player Cait McMahan, a native of Tennessee, played for the Lady Vols until knees issues forced her to retire from the game in 2009. McMahan lost her mother to cancer in 2007, and the Lady Vols program became her surrogate family.
“My first reaction was I know it’s a big deal, but she’s a fighter,” McMahan told Inside Tennessee Tuesday. “She has probably already shrugged this off her shoulders and is preparing for the first game. If anybody can deal with this, it’s her. She knows we are all thinking about her. She is in all of our prayers.
“She is a legacy in women’s basketball. She is the god of women’s basketball. When anything happens to your god, it’s going to be sad. It is what it is. It’s life. She’s going to fight this and it’s not going to keep her down at all.
“She will not let this get the best of her,” McMahan added. “Her attitude – that’s the most important thing.”
McMahan, who now does basketball training and also is an emerging rap artist, wrote and performed a poignant tribute song after her mother died, but she said any such musical shout-out for Summitt would need to wait.
“I don’t want to get attention from that right now,” McMahan said. “Maybe down the road but definitely not right now.”
Incoming recruit Andraya Carter, a guard in the class of 2012, said the news didn’t change her commitment at all.
“I am a Lady Vol,” Carter said by phone from Georgia where she is a senior at Buford High School. “I bleed orange and white, and I don’t plan on going anywhere else.”
If Summitt’s coaching career happened to be cut shorter than she hoped for because of the illness, Carter said, “I would hope that I would be on the team that sent her out with a national championship. I love Pat. I want to be a part of the team.
“I know she is going to give me everything she can, and I am going to hold my commitment to give her everything I can.”
Carter talked to Summitt by phone on Tuesday afternoon, shortly after Summitt met with the current team to tell them about her medical condition. The 59-year-old Summitt intends to coach this season and beyond.
“She told me what it was, that she had great doctors, and she was going to beat it and she was going to work her hardest to beat it,” Carter said. “She told me she would be here for me, and she told me that she loved me.”
Carter, who is recovering from ACL surgery last June, said the news about Summitt put her injury in perspective and it doesn’t seem so bad now.
“Not at all,” Carter said. “Pat and I have got a good relationship, and I want to play for her. We will just keep praying. If anybody can beat it, I think Pat can.”
Junior guard/forward Taber Spani said the team, despite the age of the Internet, got the actual news as a group, though they realized something had occurred.
"The coaches broke the news to us at the meeting," Spani said. "Obviously there's some shock. We look to Pat as a leader and someone that this would not happen to, but I can't emphasize enough that fighting mentality in her. She told us the facts of what was going on, but she was talking about cutting down nets and she is going to do everything she can to be on the court with us and work as hard as she can, probably harder than she ever has in her life.
"That go-fot-it mentality is something that we're going to rally behind. We were really inspired by today."
The 2011-12 team already placed the pressure on itself to make the Final Four - Tennessee hasn't been since 2008 and the current senior class is seeking its first. Tuesday's news put basketball and life in perspective for the team, but the desired destination remains Denver in April.
"No doubt," Spani said. "We obviously had a lot of motivation just coming into this season. We are a veteran team, and we wanted to win for our coaches and for our team. But to hear this news, this is a bigger issue, and basketball is short, and life is truly precious.
"We're extremely motivated. And that's fuel on that fire because we want to win it for Coach. We are behind her 100 percent, and we totally trust and have total confidence in her.
"Honestly, we truly love her, and we want to win for her. Hopefully, we're going to do that."
All-Pro quarterback and former Vol standout Peyton Manning released a statement making clear his high regard for Summitt:
“I want to extend my deepest sympathies and prayers to Pat during this difficult personal time. Pat is a great friend, and I am pleased she will continue to lead her program. For many years, Pat has shaped countless lives through her sacrifice and dedication to Tennessee athletics. I ask others who admire her and who have been impacted by her work to join me in wishing Pat and her family every comfort as we respect their wishes for privacy."
Barbara Dooley said the news about Summitt felt like a punch in the gut.
“My stomach did flips,” Dooley said from Athens, Ga. “It’s that feeling you get when it’s not good news.”
Dooley remembers how quickly they became friends after their first meeting.
“Pat Summitt and I decided we are kindred spirits,” Dooley said. “We hit it off just wonderfully. I put her in the same category of a John Wooden or a Coach Bear Bryant or any of the great coaches.
“I have to admire her for dealing with this in the way that she’s dealing with it. It takes a big person to make this kind of announcement and to face the fact that she might have a problem. I know everybody that knows Pat Summitt she will be right there on their prayer lists for a long time.
“Every day we wake up we have no idea what the rest of the day brings. I can remember the day I was told I had cancer and you think about what can you do. You can either crawl into a shell and have a pity party or you can do exactly what Pat Summitt is doing and that is facing it head on.
“And you know what? If anybody is going to beat it, it’s going to be that woman.”
Dooley will be in Knoxville this fall for all of the home football games to cheer for Derek Dooley and Tennessee.
“I might just knock on her door,” Barbara Dooley said. “There is one thing we both do, and that’s laugh. In times of trial the best thing you can do is find a happy smile about it.”
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