"There's not going to be any pity party and I'’ll make sure of that."
Pat Summitt, Tennessee women's basketball coach
For such a strong figure, Pat Summitt was feeling almost helpless.
Months of erratic behavior had left the Tennessee women’s basketball coach bewildered, scared and asking herself “What’s wrong with me?”
Summitt went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., in May. She underwent a series of tests and received a stunning answer. The diagnosis was early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.
Her initial reaction to learning she had a progressive condition that could impair her mental acuity was one of anger and denial. Since then, she’s moved forward in more Summitt-like fashion, formulating a plan involving medication and mental activities, such as reading and doing puzzles at night before going to sleep. She’s also taken a hopeful stance about her future.
The 59-year-old Summitt, who has 1,071 career victories and has led UT to eight national championships, is determined to continue coaching and is planning for her 38th season at UT. She has the support of the University administration.
She’s also feeling confident enough to go public with her condition. She spoke Monday night with the News Sentinel and the Washington Post and did a video for the Lady Vols’ website. She was to tell the players in a team meeting Tuesday afternoon, waiting until Glory Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen returned from the World University Games in China.
She sounded like herself in saying: “There’s not going to be any pity party and I’ll make sure of that.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, Alzheimer’s is caused by the destruction of brain cells. It usually progresses slowly, causing a gradual decline in cognitive abilities. Summitt said that her grandmother — “Granny Head” — had severe dementia.
No matter how grim the prognosis, Summitt seems relieved to have a definitive answer. Small wonder, considering how low she felt at times last season. She confessed to not being as confident on the court and second guessing some of her decisions.
“There were some mornings I would wake up and think I don’t even want to go in,” she said. “That didn’t last long but it was like ‘What’s wrong with me? What’s going on with me?’ ”
Summitt also has rheumatoid arthritis and there was some question as to whether her medication for that condition was the root cause of her problems. The series of tests she underwent at the Mayo Clinic, particularly a spinal tap, served to flush an unknown opponent out into the open.
"I feel better just knowing what I’m dealing with. And as far as I’m concerned it’s not going to keep me from living my life, not going to keep me from coaching."
“She’s always better when she knows what she’s fighting against,’’ said Summitt’s son, Tyler. “She had recommendations, what to do and what routine to get into and she’s going to prepare just like a game for her health.”
Tyler, who’s a junior at UT and a walk-on on the men’s basketball team, accompanied his mother to Minnesota and has watched her sort through her responses. Despite being the offseason, Summitt’s calendar still was crowded with SEC meetings, summer camps and July recruiting. Tyler said that the sadness and anger lingered for at least a month.
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“Nobody accepts this,’’ Tyler said. “And there was anger. “Why me?” was a question she asked more than once. But then, once she came to terms with it, she treated it like every other challenge she ever had, and is going to do everything she possibly can to keep her mind right and stay the coach.”
Summitt said that she didn’t consider retirement. She has been buoyed by the encouragement received from Dr. Ronald Petersen, the director of the Mayo Clinic’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.
“He’s the one who told me you can coach as long as you want to coach and no one else had said anything like that to me,’’ Summitt said, “I haven’t talked to him (lately) and I even thought about calling him sometime soon and telling him where I am with this. He was so positive (saying) ‘You can work through this.’ ”
No amount of optimism, though, can diminish the uncertainty related to Summitt’s intentions. Tennessee interim athletic director Joan Cronan has considered the circumstances, acknowledging that the program could take a hit in recruiting but noting that Summitt’s coaching staff of Mickie DeMoss, Holly Warlick and Dean Lockwood has 89 years worth of coaching experience with which to assist their boss.
In the end, she came back to her nearly three decades worth of experience with Summitt.
“I’m comfortable because I know her as a person and I know her as a coach,’’ Cronan said. “And I feel like if it wasn’t the right thing for her or us she wouldn’t be going forward.”
As if for emphasis, Cronan added: “We’re in uncharted waters, but we certainly have a great captain.”
Summitt has progressed from feeling helpless to being resolved.
“I feel better just knowing what I’m dealing with,’’ she said. “And as far as I’m concerned it’s not going to keep me from living my life, not going to keep me from coaching.”