There have been tears shed around the Tennessee women's basketball program over the past year and a half that have come from sadness and even fear as the great Pat Summitt faced an insidious illness.
But through it all, the program that has been so much a standard-bearer for women's college athletics has vowed to keep things as upbeat and positive as possible. So when Holly Warlick -- Summitt's longtime assistant who was elevated to head coach this spring -- found herself getting watery-eyed in October, she smiled, too. Because in this case, these actually were welcome tears of happiness.
"When that buzzer went off," Warlick said, "I cried."
She was referring to the end of Game 4 of the WNBA Finals on Oct. 21. Tamika Catchings, the former Tennessee star who is still so closely associated with her alma mater, had just won her first WNBA title with the Indiana Fever.
"Tamika is such a special person in my life, and I was so, so happy for her," said Warlick, who helped recruit Catchings to Tennessee in the 1990s. "I know how hard that kid works. You don't always win championships just because you work hard, but that kid has put in the time. I was thrilled for her. I know the commitment she's made to basketball."
Warlick herself has made the same commitment; she has pretty much given her life to basketball, specifically Lady Vols basketball. A native of Knoxville, Tenn., who played for Summitt from 1976 to '80, then returned to Tennessee after four years elsewhere as an assistant coach, Warlick now is in a new role for a program she knows so well.
Which is part of what we'll explore this season as we take a Total Access look at Tennessee: the eight-time NCAA champion that has been in transition since Summitt announced in August 2011 that she has early-onset dementia.
On alternate weeks here at espnW during the 2012-13 season, we will give you an inside look at the Lady Vols that is not so much X's and O's, but the nuts and bolts of the people and personalities that make up the Tennessee program. Much as espnW's Michelle Smith did last season in a Total Access with Stanford, we want to present the many sides of Tennessee women's basketball.
With five seniors having departed, a different makeup to the coaching staff and a young squad with eight freshmen/sophomores, it's a new era for Tennessee.
The Lady Vols, along with Connecticut, have been the two most heavily media-covered women's hoops programs over the past two decades. You might believe you've already heard every story about Tennessee. But what we want to show is where the Lady Vols are now, how they are dealing with the changes in their program and the sport in general, and where they are headed.
Summitt is in a head coach emeritus role and is still involved with the program. We'll get some of her insights as we look at Tennessee this season. Warlick and Dean Lockwood remain on the Tennessee staff, now joined by former Tennessee player Kyra Elzy, and Jolette Law, former head coach at Illinois.
"We're back to being crazy; it's a lot of fun to come in here," Warlick said of a Tennessee office that understandably was more subdued last season as everyone -- including Summitt -- adjusted to her illness. "We all have a lot of respect for each other. We're serious, but we can have fun here, too. We've got a great chemistry with each other. I'm sitting here with a big smile, because of how much I enjoy working with them. They are very comfortable telling me what they think, which I love.
"And Kyra, a former player here, is like me: She believes in this program, and it's in her blood. You can't fake that."
As we examine Tennessee throughout this season, we will try to capture that essence of a program that binds its alumni and fans so tightly to it. Is it about winning? Of course. But there's a lot more to it.