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DeMoss makes first return trip to UK after quitting as coach

Mickie  De Moss was Kentucky women's basketball head coach from 2003 to 2007, and was SEC coach of the year in 2005-06.
Mickie De Moss was Kentucky women's basketball head coach from 2003 to 2007, and was SEC coach of the year in 2005-06. LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

Mickie DeMoss has never been short on quick wit.

So when asked what she expects the fan reception to be when she returns to Memorial Coliseum for the first time since she abruptly resigned her head coaching job at Kentucky four years ago, she laughs.

"I'll probably have to dodge a few whiskey bottles," said DeMoss, now a Tennessee assistant again.

It's been four years since De Moss shocked the women's basketball world and stepped down from her job as UK head coach, leaving behind a new, lucrative five-year contract, a shiny, plush new office at the Joe Craft Center, a top-10 recruiting class and a large crop of talented returning players.

DeMoss also left behind a lot of questions and teary-eyed players who wanted the coach that recruited them to stay.

As DeMoss announced her decision — saying that after 30 years in coaching she needed a break — she had the support of Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart.

But less than three months later, she was back on the sideline, this time as an assistant coach at Texas.

That move left many scratching their heads and Barnhart looking into whether DeMoss was in breach of contract and owed UK money for taking another coaching job.

No action was taken by UK, and DeMoss spent three years at Texas before being lured back to Tennessee by good friend Pat Summitt.

DeMoss is one of many compelling story lines entering No. 16 Kentucky's game against fifth-ranked Tennessee on Monday night for what many consider to be the biggest women's basketball game in Memorial Coliseum since UK won its lone Southeastern Conference title there over the Lady Vols in 1982.

The former UK coach admitted it will be strange being back at Memorial Coliseum.

"It will be kind of odd when I first walk out on the floor," she said.

'I don't have a life'

On the day she resigned, DeMoss refused to use the word burnout when asked to explain her departure.

But some four years later, that's basically what the coach describes, saying she was "right on the verge of burnout."

It was a huge challenge bringing Kentucky out of the basement of the SEC and making it the kind of place that top players want to play.

When DeMoss took over at UK, the Cats had won a combined 20 games in the two previous seasons.

"When I got there, I felt like I had to get the program going, so I didn't hardly say no to anybody," DeMoss said. "I was everywhere, and it was just such a grind for me. I thought, 'Man, I don't want to spend the next 15 years like this. I don't have a life.'"

The coach said she loved the people at UK — she still has many friends in Lexington — the teaching part, the game-strategy part, but noted that those are not the "only demands on a head basketball coach, especially at the University of Kentucky."

So even though she was less than a year removed from being Kentucky's first SEC Coach of the Year, she no longer wanted to be its head coach.

"It wasn't some spur of the moment thing that I did," DeMoss said. "I agonized over it for months."

DeMoss had plenty of advisers telling her to give it more time, but she knew in her heart it was time to go.

"I couldn't see a light at the end of the tunnel," she said. "I enjoy doing other things, and I felt like, with that job, I was almost starting to resent the time demands. I thought it wasn't fair to Kentucky either. They need someone to come in here who will embrace all of this stuff."

Summitt, the Hall of Fame coach at Tennessee, was one of those people telling her longtime friend to stay at UK. But over time, it became clear to Summitt that DeMoss was not happy.

"She didn't like the head-coaching part of it," Summitt said this week. "She is really happy in the role she is in (now as an assistant coach), and not feeling the pressure of being a head coach. It's not for everybody, it's really not. I'm just the crazy one, I guess."

Leaving her mark

An eternal optimist, De Moss said she tries to live her life with no regrets.

That mantra applies to her four years at Kentucky.

"It was one of the best four years — I know that sounds ironic when I talk about being under such strain — but it was some of the best years of my coaching career up there," DeMoss said. "I wouldn't trade that experience for anything in the world."

She added that in some small way, she hopes she left her mark on UK basketball.

"I'd like to think that I had a positive impact on the program," she said.

One glance down the current Kentucky bench shows that she has.

DeMoss hired current Cats head coach Matthew Mitchell to her first staff. Last season, he took the program to the NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight and has built this year's team into a top-25 program.

DeMoss helped recruit the current UK crop of seniors, including reigning SEC Player of the Year Victoria Dunlap.

While at Tennessee the first time, DeMoss recruited and coached Kentucky assistant coaches Kyra Elzy and Shalon Pillow.

Seeing their success warms her heart.

"I'm on the downside of my career, and it's good to see some young coaches coming up the pipe and, hopefully, I've had a little influence on them," she said.

While they don't talk so much during the hectic basketball season, DeMoss said she did text a few encouraging words to the UK staff during its three-game losing streak this season.

Mitchell expressed mutual admiration for DeMoss.

"I wouldn't be standing here talking to you right now if it weren't for Mickie De Moss," Mitchell said Friday. "I love her, and she has done more for me than any single person in my life professionally. ... She's very influential to both the women on our staff that played there. She's done a lot for a lot of people, and she's a good woman."

For all of the above reasons, Mitchell said he expects there won't be any flying whiskey (or bourbon, since we are in Kentucky) bottles come Monday night for the nationally televised game.

"We have great fans here, and Mickie did great things for this program," Mitchell said. "They should do nothing but give her a warm reception. I know I'll give her one."

Summitt said something similar when asked how she expected UK fans might treat their former head coach.

"They better not boo her," Summitt said with a big laugh. "That'll just fire us up."

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