Last Friday, Mickie DeMoss and Holly Warlick walked into the Georgia home of Spencer and Evelyn Butts. They were there to say goodbye to former Lady Vol basketball player Tasha Butts who was in the final days of her battle with metastatic breast cancer.
DeMoss, who now makes her home in Florida, traveled by vehicle with Warlick, who happened to be visiting the Sunshine State at that time. The longtime assistants at Tennessee had coached Butts and as recruiting coordinator, DeMoss had walked inside the Milledgeville home with Pat Summitt in the late 1990s to visit the family and make the pitch for Butts to become a Lady Vol.
Butts died Monday at the age of 41. She had been diagnosed in late 2021 with advanced stage breast cancer while serving as associate head coach at Georgia Tech for Nell Fortner.
“We got a chance to just sit and visit with her for a little bit,” said Warlick, who took the reins as head coach at Tennessee from 2012-19. “I think she was thankful that we came and especially just to be around her parents. You’re not supposed to bury your daughter. You’re not supposed to outlive your child. I’m glad we could visit with them and try to somehow comfort them.”
A private person by nature, Butts became an advocate for breast cancer awareness. Georgia Tech and Butts created the “Tasha Tough” campaign with the Kay Yow Cancer Fund to raise money for women who couldn’t afford healthcare and screenings.
Butts responded well to treatment and last April, she was introduced as the new head coach at Georgetown. During her introductory press conference in Washington, D.C., Butts seemed like her usual self – positive, smiling and competitive. But later that summer, Butts’ health rapidly deteriorated. By September, she had to step away from her position to focus on her health.
“Only her family and closest people knew just how serious it was,” said DeMoss, who was on the staff at Georgia Tech when Butts was initially diagnosed. “She is an extremely private person, and you have to respect that.”
DeMoss knew Butts had returned home and called her parents to ask if she and Warlick could visit. The longtime coaches and friends prepared to say goodbye to their former player who became a coaching colleague as they drove nearly six hours to Milledgeville from the Florida Panhandle.
“I wanted to see her, and I wanted her to see me as time was running out,” DeMoss said. “We wanted to let her know we were there.”
Last July, former Lady Vol Nikki McCray-Penson passed away at the age of 51 from breast cancer.
“It’s heartbreaking because especially us as coaches, you take on the responsibility of being their parent away from home so you feel like you’ve lost a child,” Warlick said. “It’s difficult to sit and think of how many Lady Vols we lost, and it’s heart-wrenching.”
Butts’ death jolted an extended Tennessee family that had barely had time to grieve the loss of McCray-Penson.
“It seems pretty unbelievable that the Lady Vol family has been hit as hard as we’ve been hit,” DeMoss said. “Losing players that are young and that you’ve coached and recruited and you’ve known since they were freshmen in high school, and they’ve been a part of your life for a long time, it’s part of what Pat stood for, what this program stands for, is that we’re a family.
“You’re a Lady Vol for Life. That was not just a saying. It wasn’t a cliché. It was something that we truly lived. You feel like you’ve lost a family member.”
Butts, a dynamic guard, played at Tennessee from 2000-04 and won four SEC regular season championships and played in three Final Fours in 2002, 2003 and 2004.
One of her most memorable games came March 28, 2004, against Baylor in the Sweet 16 in Norman, Oklahoma. With the game tied at 69-69, Shyra Ely had a breakaway layup off a steal but missed. Butts sprinted behind Ely, grabbed the offensive rebound and a Baylor player knocked her to the court.
“She was just tough and a big time competitor,” Warlick said. “She didn’t take things for granted. Nothing was given to her. Everything she got she had to work for, and she didn’t mind working for it. She was extremely competitive.”
The whistle blew with .2 seconds left, and Butts calmly made both free throws for a 71-69 win. Then Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey was, to say the least, in agony on the sideline.
“Tasha was a competitor, and she certainly did not like to lose,” DeMoss said. “She had a beautiful smile. It went from ear to ear. She could light up a room.”
After college, Butts played professional basketball in the WNBA and overseas and then started her coaching career as a graduate assistant for Summitt. That was followed by assistant positions at Duquesne, UCLA and LSU, the associate head coach position at Georgia Tech and then her first head coaching job at Georgetown.
Because of their longevity as coaches at Tennessee – DeMoss at 20 years and Warlick at 34 years – the two are a common thread for so many Lady Vol players. When a member of the family is lost, it weighs on both of them. Former players and coaches with ties to Tennessee and Summitt, who died in 2016, reach out to them to talk or seek comfort or share tears.
“It’s heavy,” DeMoss said. “For me I was so involved with the recruiting of all these kids. You really got to know those kids. You got to know the parents. You got to know the family. They became a part of your life. Tasha and Nikki were both in the coaching profession, so that kept that connection even tighter.”
Nearly 25 years later, DeMoss walked through that same front door in Milledgeville. Her heart broke for Spencer and Evelyn Butts.
“They were just really sad,” DeMoss said. “They kept thanking me and Holly for coming up and how much her being a part of this Tennessee program meant to her and her life. It was more than four years.
“They couldn’t thank us enough and couldn’t believe we were there. I said, ‘That’s the Tennessee way. It’s what we do.’ That’s what Pat would have done. That’s what we’re doing.”
Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at MoxCar Marketing + Communications since 2013, started her journalism career at the Knoxville News Sentinel and began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press.