KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Pat Summitt struggled for several months with how to tell the women’s basketball players at Tennessee, recruits and fans that she was having memory loss problems.
Finally, her son Tyler helped convince her to open up.
The 59-year-old Hall of Fame coach surprised the sports world Tuesday by saying she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia — the Alzheimer’s type.
Step down after 37 seasons? Not a chance.
“I plan to continue to be your coach,” she said in a statement released by the university. “Obviously, I realize I may have some limitations with this condition since there will be some good days and some bad days.”
Tennessee athletics director Joan Cronan said Summitt, 59, initially chalked up her memory problems to side effects from medicine she was taking to treat rheumatoid arthritis. 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 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 every day, 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.”
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 publically to the Washington Post and Knoxville News Sentinel. She informed the Lady Vols about her diagnosis in a team meeting on Tuesday afternoon.
Junior guard Taber Spani said the meeting was business-like, with Summitt calmly telling the Lady Vols nothing would get in the way for their quest of a ninth national title this season.
“More than anything she just emphasized that she’s our coach and that she wanted us to have complete confidence in her, and we do,” Spani said.
Warlick said the players told Summitt that they were committed to her and the Tennessee family and would not let her down. Warlick said for Summitt, the support was “like a weight was off her shoulders.”
“I watched how our team reacted to us today,” Warlick said. “They said, ‘Pat we love you. We’re a family. We’re going to get this done. You’re going to get through this.”’
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.”
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey wouldn’t expect anything to change. She who won a gold medal playing for Summitt in the 1984 Olympics and expects Summitt to face dementia with the same toughness she approaches basketball.
“She’s our John Wooden. If you are a Tennessee fan or not, there’s no denying her place in women’s basketball,” Mulkey said. “I played for the woman. She’s as tough as nails. People think I’m tough. I’m a pussycat compared to Pat Summitt …. Pat Summitt will fight. Pat Summitt will be on a crusade to help people with dementia.”
Cronan and UT-Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek have pledged their confidence in Summitt as well, maintaining that Summitt will be allowed to coach as long as she feels capable of doing so, which was a relief to Summitt, Warlick said.
“Pat Summitt is our head coach and she will continue to be,” Cronan said. “She is an icon not only for women’s basketball but for all of women’s athletics. For Pat to stand-up and share her health news is just a continuing example of her courage. Life is an unknown and none of us have a crystal ball. But I do have a record of knowing what Pat Summitt stands for; excellence, strength, honesty and courage.”
Warlick, who with fellow Lady Vols assistants Dean Lockwood and Mickie DeMoss, will assume extra responsibilities as needed to help Summitt.
As college basketball’s winningest coach, Summitt has spent 37 seasons at Tennessee and has 1,071 career victories and eight national championships. She is not the alone in her fight. Retired men’s basketball coach Dean Smith — the 80-year-old former North Carolina coach, who has 879 victories, reached 11 Final Fours and won two national championships — is suffering from a progressive ne urocognitive disorder that affects his memory.
Summitt has made it clear to her players that she expects that to end this season.
That doesn’t surprise any of Summitt’s former players or rivals.
“I’m definitely shocked to hear the news, but knowing Pat she will get through this, and we will all stand by her side through this,” Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings said. “She’ll face yet another obstacle with determination and will power to live life to the fullest.”
LSU coach and former Lady Vol Nikki Caldwell agreed.
“I’ve known Coach Summitt for 23 years and there has never been a fight that she’s backed down from,” Caldwell said. “All of us who have played or coached under her leadership, we know she will take this fight on like she does with every task. She will do it with dignity, toughness, courage and an unwavering commitment.”
Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker said she’s excited Summitt is going to continue coaching and doing what she loves.
“I’m so proud of her for coming forward with it. I think a lot of people would have hid it,” she said.
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma summed up most of the reaction to Summitt’s diagnosis.
“You don’t necessarily associate dementia with people our age so this announcement really put things in perspective,” Auriemma said in a statement. “Pat has great support from her family, friends and staff and I know they will help her immensely. There is no doubt in my mind that Pat will take on this challenge as she has all others during her Hall of Fame career — head on. I wish her all the best.”