Former Vol Simmons recalls final two seasons playing for Pat Summitt

GAINESVILLE, FL - FEBRUARY 08: Head coach Pat Summitt of the Tennessee Volunteers watches her team against the Florida Gators during the game at the O'Connell Center on February 8, 2009 in Gainesville, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

GAINESVILLE, FL - FEBRUARY 08: Head coach Pat Summitt of the Tennessee Volunteers watches her team against the Florida Gators during the game at the O'Connell Center on February 8, 2009 in Gainesville, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

Meighan Simmons grew up wanting to play basketball at Tennessee, so when the Atlanta Dream guard rebuffed mighty Connecticut to sign with Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols in early 2010, it was a dream come true.

Upon her arrival in Knoxville, Simmons played two seasons under Summitt before Summitt, the winningest coach in Division I history, stepped down after the 2011-12 season, nearly a year after revealing that she'd been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

Summitt passed away early Tuesday at the age of 64, and late Monday, Simmons recalled her experience playing for and learning from the woman she called the greatest coach of all time.

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"I just remember her toughness -- in general, as a person, her personality," Simmons told FOX Sports. "She had a very strong personality and I think that personality, it kind of brushed off on us. When we came out to the floor, we all played with that same mentality and just had a toughness and a fire the rest of the time we were there."

Summitt, who took over the Tennessee program as a 22-year-old with no coaching experience in 1974, was first diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's in May 2011, two months after Tennessee's loss to Notre Dame in the regional final of the NCAA women's tournament. Summitt made her diagnosis public in August of that year, but remained with the team throughout the following season

"When we found out, my heart dropped down to my feet," Simmons recalled. "I just didn't know what to say because of the type of person that she was. And it bothered me because I felt like this was somebody who's been risking her time for us to make us better, and at the same time we wanted to do everything that we could to make her proud and not stress her about anything else."

Simmons said there was no indication that something was wrong prior to the news of Summitt's diagnosis, but that the signs became more apparent during her sophomore season.

"That full freshman year, nobody knew anything," Simmons said. "She was being the typical Pat, very aggressive, that kind of thing. Then the next year, you could kind of tell there was a little bit of a difference, but we didn't know if it was really something or if it was just something else."

Regardless, Summitt's outlook for her team remained the same.

"Expectations were still high for each and every one of us," Simmons said. "Nothing was actually really changing. We knew what we had to do from the get-go, when we had our initial player-coach meetings. She already told us what we expected of us and all we had to do was continue to carry out those expectations and play hard for her. We just wanted to continue to make her proud."

As Summitt bid her farewell to college coaching, Tennessee went 21-8 during the 2011-12 regular season, earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament that spring. Summitt won her final game as a head coach against Kansas in the Sweet 16 before the Lady Vols fell to eventual champion Baylor in the Elite Eight.

"We all kind of had a feeling of, 'OK, this may be the last time we actually get to see her in that light,'" Simmons said of Summitt, who didn't officially step down to become head coach emeritus until April 2012. "And I remember her being very emotional -- not with any tears, but she had a lot of emotion toward us, letting us know how much she cared about us and how you win some, you lose some, but there's always work to be done.

"She let us know that we were a great team, and she was so caring," Simmons continued. "She was like a mother figure to all of us."

The idea that Summitt was fiercer than she was nurturing, Simmons added, is the biggest misconception there is about the iconic coach.

And in the years following her diagnosis, Summitt made it a priority to focus on making the most of all those bonds she formed over 38 years on the job. In 2013, Summitt's son, Tyler, told FOX Sports his mother "will never measure her career by championships or wins or all the numbers that we like to throw out," and Summitt's new emphasis on making personal connections was something Simmons witnessed firsthand.

"I think she was realizing the effects of her having these issues, so she wanted to create those closer relationships," Simmons said. "She wanted people to know that there's another side of her outside of basketball. She didn't want to just be Pat Summitt the basketball coach. She wanted to be a human being, and a lot of people started to really see who she truly was as a woman."

Simmons said she last saw Summitt in person in 2014, at the end of her senior season at Tennessee. And even then, Simmons recalled her old coach being in good spirits, despite her progressing condition.

"Our relationships with her grew over the years, and when we'd come back and see her, she was always very excited," Simmons said. "She wanted to know more about us personally and making sure that we were OK. You could definitely see that she was making the effort to make every personal relationship that she had grow.

"I remember going to her house and seeing her and communicating with her, and she was hyped, very upbeat, and that's the Pat I know," Simmons added of her last visit with Summitt. "After I left, I didn't know the next time I was going to see her, and seeing what she was going through and understanding what was going on, it made me very emotional and it made me pray for her even more."

That's a sentiment shared by the dozens of former Lady Vols who visited Summitt in Knoxville during her final days, as well.

"The players that are coming from all across the world to pay their respects to her and her family, it just shows you the kind of person she was, the impact that she brought to the game of basketball and who she is," Simmons said. "She was a leader and a passionate mother to all of us, and I think (the response) says a lot about her. People tend to gravitate to her, and I think it shows how great of a person she really was on and off the floor."