Pat Summitt has eight national championships at Tennessee.
By LYNN ZINSER
Pat Summitt, the longtime women’s basketball coach at Tennessee who has won more games than any other major college coach, said she forgot things at crucial points in games at times last season and struggled to keep track of when meetings were scheduled. She grew so confused that on a few days she simply stayed home from work.
Al Behrman/Associated Press
Pat Summitt during a news conference in March. She said she planned to coach in the coming season.
It was not until after the season ended that she sought a medical diagnosis and learned she has symptoms of early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Ms. Summitt, 59, revealed the diagnosis on Tuesday, and said she planned to continue to coach. She said her doctor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., encouraged her to continue as long as she felt up to it.
“I plan to continue to be your coach,” Ms. Summitt said in a videotaped statement posted on the university’s Web site. “Obviously, I realize I may have some limitations with this condition since there will be some good days and some bad days.”
Ms. Summitt built a powerhouse program in Knoxville that often outshone the university’s men’s team, amassing 1,079 victories that make her the most successful Division I coach of either gender. She will enter her 38th season at Tennessee in pursuit of her ninth national title.
Long known for a steely, intense coaching style, Ms. Summitt will now also be the public face of a debilitating disease.
Early onset Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease. Experts say that every case is different, so it is impossible to say how long Ms. Summitt will be able to work, but she said she hoped to manage the symptoms with medication and mental exercises. She said that she has a family history of dementia, with her grandmother having a severe case.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million people in the United States have the disease — including 200,000 younger than 65 — and it is the sixth-leading cause of death in the country. The cause is unknown, there is no cure and the treatment involves managing the disease’s symptoms.
“Early diagnosis is really important,” said Beth Kallmyer, the senior director of constituent services for the Alzheimer’s Association. “It gives people the opportunity to go out and do what they want to do with their lives while they can.
“It is a debilitating and fatal disease, but people can go on with their lives and their jobs.”
Ms. Summitt’s bosses at Tennessee agreed to support her decision to coach, they said, because of her legacy and the strength of her coaching staff.
“There’s not going to be any pity party, and I’ll make sure of that,” Ms. Summitt told The Knoxville News Sentinel. “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.”
Ms. Summitt granted interviews to The News Sentinel and The Washington Post but declined other requests.
Ms. Summitt battled her illness and the accompanying uncertainty last season, but Tennessee still finished 34-3 and won the Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament titles. The Lady Vols reached the final eight of the N.C.A.A. tournament, which is considered a disappointment at a program annually expected to contend for the national championship.
“I just felt something was different,” she told The Washington Post. “And at the time I didn’t know what I was dealing with. Until I went to Mayo, I couldn’t know for sure. But I can remember trying to coach and trying to figure out schemes and whatever and it just wasn’t coming to me, like, I would typically say, ‘We’re gonna do this, and run that.’ And it probably caused me to second-guess.”
According to Ms. Kallmyer, the progression of the disease affects people in different ways, but Ms. Summitt’s many years of coaching experience could help her.
“One of the early symptoms is difficulty learning new material and understanding new ideas,” Ms. Kallmyer said. “Someone who is doing something they’re very skilled at might have fewer problems with that.”
Ms. Summitt sought medical help after the season. At first, she thought the problem involved medication she takes for rheumatoid arthritis, but doctors quickly steered her to the Mayo Clinic for further testing. She said she spent several weeks in denial and angry about the news before slowly accepting it.
Tennessee’s interim athletic director, Joan Cronan, the university’s longtime women’s sports administrator, said there were concerns about Ms. Summitt’s continuing to coach, including a fear that it could hurt recruiting or distract from the team’s efforts. But Ms. Cronan said she and Tennessee’s chancellor, Jimmy Cheek, agreed that Ms. Summitt remained an asset to the university and to the sport.
“She is an icon not only for women’s basketball, but all of women’s athletics,” Ms. Cronan said in a statement. “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 has a crystal ball. But I do have a record of knowing what Pat Summitt stands for: excellence, strength, honesty and courage.”
Ms. Summitt told her team the news on Tuesday, the first day the players were all on campus. “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,” the junior guard Taber Spani told reporters after the meeting.
Ms. Summitt’s biggest rival, Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma, who is touring with his team in Italy, said he 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 in a statement.
Throughout her diagnosis and the slow process of coming to grips with it over the summer, Ms. Summitt said she stuck close to her son Tyler, a junior at Tennessee and a walk-on with the men’s basketball team. Tyler Summitt, 20, was by her side during her interviews.
“She’s always better when she knows what she’s fighting against,” he told The News Sentinel. “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.”