Tennessee basketball coach has early onset dementia
Pat Summitt made it clear. She won’t accept a “pity party.”
The winningest coach in women’s basketball just wants to focus on getting Tennessee back on top.
Summitt surprised the sports world with her announcement Tuesday that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia — the Alzheimer’s type. The Hall of Fame coach appeared stoic during a minute-long video posted on the school’s website.
“I plan to continue to be your coach,” the 59-year-old said in the video. “Obviously, I realize I may have some limitations with this condition since there will be some good days and some bad days.”
There is no cure for the disease and even Summitt’s icy glare that has struck fear in many an opponent, official or Lady Vols player, won’t be able to stop its advances.
Still she said she won’t have her time at Tennessee turn into a “pity party.”
Summitt isn’t sure how much longer she will coach only saying that she would do it “as long as the good Lord is willing”.
Before Tuesday’s news, Summitt was trying to figure out a way to end a three-year drought of missing the Final Four — one of the longest in her 37-year tenure at the school. She does have one of the top recruiting classes coming in this year as freshmen.
She met with her team Tuesday to discuss her diagnosis. Junior guard Taber Spani said the meeting was businesslike, with Summitt telling the Lady Vols nothing would get in the way for their quest of a ninth national title this season.
“It’s shocking, just because you don’t expect that to happen to someone you look up to,” Spani said. “I admire her, and just seeing her just gave me more confidence in her as a coach. We’re going to rally.”
Summitt will rely more on her assistants — Holly Warlick, Dean Lockwood and Mickie DeMoss — but they aren’t sure exactly how things may change.
“We’re here to help Pat as far as coaching and will help this program continue its tradition. And I’m here for Pat as a friend,” Warlick said. “I know she’s going to be here coaching, but she is quick to say this is Tennessee basketball. We’re going to carry on the tradition no matter what.”
Warlick said Summitt also wanted to crush any speculation about her health after the announcement.
“We got on the phone immediately and called kids and commitments and had nothing but a huge amount of support,” Warlick said. “I think it’s one thing to see it on the (TV news) ticker. It’s another thing to hear from Pat Summitt that we’re here, we’re going to be here and nothing is going to change about Tennessee basketball.”
Summitt’s family and closest confidants have known about her condition since she first learned of it, but the Hall of Fame coach first revealed the news publicly to the Washington Post and Knoxville News Sentinel.
She also told her former players early Tuesday morning.
“As a player, we know coach is the type who’s not going to give up. She’s going to fight, she’s going to do everything she can,” said Michelle Snow, who played for Tennessee from 1998-2002. “She’s probably going to be the best patient they ever had. She’s a fighter and she’s been through a lot. She knows how to fight and she’s going to continue to do that.”
As the stunning news swept across the women’s basketball world Tuesday, the reaction was simple: she’ll meet the disease head on.
Indiana Fever coach Lin Dunn first met Summitt 40 years ago at Tennessee-Martin. The two used to play softball in the summer together and were sorority sisters. She was floored this morning when she got the phone call with the news.
“My first reaction was tremendous respect, how she was publicly acknowledging this disease. I know how tough minded she is, tremendous perseverance,” Dunn said by phone. “She will bring national attention to this disease and she can spearhead a move to try and fight it.”
That sentiment was echoed by former Lady Vols star Candace Parker.
“I don’t think she is going to let it affect her,” the Los Angeles Sparks star said. “I think she is going to continue on coaching as long as she can. She came out with (the news) and now we’re going to move forward.”
Summitt’s biggest rival, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma was shocked and saddened by the news.
“You don’t necessarily associate dementia with people our age, so this announcement really put things in perspective,” he said.
Summitt has won eight national titles at Tennessee and is 29 victories short of 1,100 — that would give her 200 more than former Texas coach Jody Conradt, who is No. 2 on the list.
“It always seemed she had no vulnerability,” Conradt said. “She’s the solid rock everyone looked up to. … I’m very happy she’s not going to walk off the court at this point. When you have made it your life, there needs to be transition.”
Summitt has been bothered for a while by rheumatoid arthritis. Tennessee athletics director Joan Cronan said that the coach initially chalked up her memory problems to side effects from medicine she was taking to treat it.
The coach first consulted local doctors, who recommended she undergo a more extensive evaluation. In May, she traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where doctors performed a spinal tap and other tests that eventually produced the diagnosis.
Summitt’s first reaction was anger, but that soon gave way to determination.
“She’s ready to fight this and move on,” Cronan said. “She had to come to grips with how she wanted to face it.”
Talking about it was a big step and her son Tyler was instrumental in making that happen.
“Tyler has been so courageous in this,” Summitt’s longtime associate head coach Holly Warlick said. “He encouraged her to come forward.”
Tyler has been supporting his mother throughout this process; he went to the Mayo Clinic with her in May. And though he has been a great sounding board, the 20-year-old said his mom’s revelation is a life lesson for everyone.
“It seems like she teaches me something new everyday, and she is currently giving me one of the best life lessons of all: to have the courage to be open, honest, and face the truth,” he said. “This will be a new chapter for my mom and I, and we will continue to work as a team like we always have done.”
AP Sports Writers Beth Rucker and Jim Vertuno contributed to this story.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.