About Alzheimer’s disease
• 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer’s
• 120,000 in Tennessee
• 120,000 in Georgia
Source: Alzheimer’s Association 2010 special report
About Alzheimer’s disease
• Dementia is a loss of brain function.
• Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia that gradually gets worse over time and affects memory, thinking, and behavior.
• With early onset Alzheimer’s, symptoms appear before age 60 and the disease tends to get worse quickly.
• The cause of Alzheimer’s is unknown but genes and environmental factors seem to play a role.
Source: National Institutes of Health
The two yellow Labradors belong to University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt. The pooches, Sally and Sadie, are “her prized possessions,” says Tyler, Summitt’s son.
“And if you want to see the veins still pop out of her neck or feel that stare of hers burn a hole through your head, just forget to feed those dogs or let them out,” Tyler says with a laugh. “If you don’t take care of the princesses, the queen isn’t happy.”
Patricia Sue Head Summitt has been the queen bee of women’s basketball for 38 seasons, ever since the day in May 1974 when UT hired the then 21-year-old graduating senior at UT-Martin to run the Lady Vols program.
The years since have brought one Olympic gold medal, eight NCAA championships, induction into the national Basketball Hall of Fame, 31 total Southeastern Conference titles and 1,093 victories and counting, the most of any NCAA Division I coach in history — men’s or women’s.
The numbers are eye-popping, as is the respect her reputation carries across the sport.
“Her constant pursuit of excellence, even after all the accomplishments, is a separator from other coaches,” Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski — the all-time men’s victories leader with 926 — wrote in an email.
“It is easy to take for granted how truly great she is.”
Yet ever since the 59-year-old Summitt announced last August that she has early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, sightings of those voluminous neck veins and her storied stare — as integral a part of Summitt’s image as her coaching skills — have been few and far between, forcing everyone to ponder just how many opportunities remain to watch her talent on display.
“We still have this season to play out,” UT women’s athletic director Joan Cronan said in an attempt to defuse rumors regarding Summitt’s retirement. “We’re focusing on this season right now.”
But once this season ends, the future is clearly unknown.
Even her son doesn’t know if his mom will coach next season.
“I can’t really answer that,” Tyler Summitt said. “There has been a lot of speculation. Coaching comes with a lot of stress. What I do know is that Mom has always put the team before herself. Now she has to put herself before the team.”
Whether it’s her more-strenuous exercise routine, the mental puzzles she completes each morning before she heads to the office, the medicine she takes — or all three — those closest to Summitt say she seems to have improved since last summer.
“I don’t know what will happen in the next year or two, no one does,” her son said, “but right now she’s better.”
Dr. Ron Zeigler, who works daily with Alzheimer’s patients at Chattanooga’s Alexian Brothers, acknowledged that the disease moves faster in younger patients.
“Pat Summitt is certainly young to have Alzheimer’s,” he said. “[But] the medicine we have for this does slow the process down.”
Zeigler, who doesn’t work with Summitt, said her son’s comments that his mother is improving “says the medicine is doing its work. In those situations, the patient can plateau, sometimes for a couple of years, though the length of the plateau varies with every patient.”
For those closest to her, though, the biggest adjustment has been dealing with the fact that this former “Wonder Woman, able to do seven or eight things at once” isn’t quite that person anymore, Tyler Summitt said.
“Now she’s more like everybody else, doing just two or three things at one time,” he said. “Trust me, though, she’s still the boss of her house and her office.”
He also disputes the notion that his mother has appeared to do almost no coaching from the bench this season.
“I’m not saying she’s still popping the veins out of her neck every day in practice, but my mother’s always been secure enough to let her assistants do a lot of the coaching, especially in practice,” he said. “It’s been that way for as far back as I can remember. If they were going to be able to run their own programs one day, she felt they needed to be able to help run practices.”
Longtime assistant coach Mickie DeMoss — who left Summitt’s side for a time to run the Florida and Kentucky women’s basketball programs — agrees.
“She’s always given us a lot of responsibility ... especially in practice,” DeMoss said. “Now I don’t know if we ever had the freedom on the bench during a game to just a call a play, [but] we would discuss it.”
Associate head coach Holly Warlick said earlier this season that Summitt “is still our head coach and she is doing a heck of a job. She is at every practice; she is heavily recruiting; she is involved in everything we do.”
A TOUGH SEASON
From the outside, it has appeared as if Summitt’s entire coaching staff has needed to be involved in everything every day just to keep the Lady Vols reasonably close to their historically high standards.
Four of UT’s eight losses heading into this weekend have come by 14 or more points, including a 28-point beatdown at Notre Dame. Perhaps more troubling, three of the other four were by four points or less or in overtime.
In one of the more telling comments of this season after a loss to the University of Arkansas, senior forward Shekinna Stricklen — the Lady Vols’ leading scorer who missed four straight free throws late against the Razorbacks — said: “We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy game, but we weren’t focused.”
Some would say this five-woman senior class of Briana Bass, Alicia Manning, Vicki Baugh, Glory Johnson and Stricklen always has lacked focus and toughness, at least by Summitt’s sky-high standards.
UT’s last three exits in the NCAA tournament have all come before the Final Four and all by 14 or more points. The only other time in Summitt’s career that the Lady Vols lost three straight NCAA tournament games by that margin or greater was 2000 through 2002, but two of those three were Final Four defeats.
Her frustration with this team and its senior class clearly showed after the Arkansas loss.
“All season long,” she said then, “I have asked the same question: Who is getting in the gym to knock down shots and free throws on their own time? Who is invested in getting better every day?”
Then again, maybe the stress of this particular season — of seeing their coach struggle with Alzheimer’s, of knowing Warlick often is running practices yet also knowing Summitt still has the final say — has simply become too much to bear.
After the Arkansas loss, Warlick said, “They wanted the game more than we did.”
Or maybe the Lady Vols merely want too much to send Summitt out with a ninth national title, if this is to be her final year. Especially when — according to freshman Cierra Burdick during an ESPN interview — Summitt told the Lady Vols before the season, “Go out there and win a ninth national championship.”
The pressure to win it all for her coach is “in the back of everyone’s mind,” Manning said last week.
And even before the season began, Baugh said: “We’re not just playing for Pat, we’re playing for everyone who has Alzheimer’s.”
THE BIGGER PICTURE
For all the uncertainty regarding Summitt’s future, there also remain a few positives.
“As sad as this is for Pat Summitt and all those who care about her, this is a tremendous opportunity to raise both awareness and funding for Alzheimer’s,” Zeigler said.
The situation, he said, is similar to the late Jim Valvano, coach of the men’s basketball team at North Carolina State University, who was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1992 but created The V Foundation for Cancer Research before he died in 1993.
“You look at what Jim Valvano did for cancer research in this country and I believe Pat will have a similar impact on Alzheimer’s,” Zeigler said. “I believe she already is.”
Indeed, the Summitt Foundation, a charity founded years ago by Summitt, has already raised over $300,000 for Alzheimer’s research.
Then there’s the personal impact.
“It’s strengthened our faith, brought us closer to God,” Tyler Summitt said. “The outpouring of support has been unbelievable. You get at least 100 emails a day from people telling you they’re praying for you and thinking of you. I’ve heard from Coach Krzyzewski, Coach [Billy] Donovan [of the University of Florida], Coach [Roy] Williams [of the University of North Carolina].
“It’s pretty much every coach you could think of, all of them just wanting Mom to know they’re thinking about us. It’s been incredible.”
Krzyzewski said her situation has forced him to look at his life beyond basketball.
“As coaches, we give up so much of our lives to our profession,” he wrote. “You need to have family and friends pull you away once in a while to smell the roses. Both Pat’s and my family have done that for us, and we’re so lucky to have that support.”
Whatever happens from this point forward, those who know Summitt say her legacy is untouchable and incomparable, as sparkling as the Thompson-Boling Arena basketball court that bears her name.
“In my mind, [late UCLA coach] John Wooden and Pat Summitt are the two biggest names in the history of college basketball,” Cronan said. “There will never be a better role model for women’s athletics than Pat.”
ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas called her “one of the best coaches in the history of sports, any sport. What she’s going through now is hard to fathom, but like everything else she’s ever done in her life, she’s handling it with dignity and grace. Just an exceptional human being.”
The Sporting News named the 50 greatest coaches of all-time in 2009; Summitt was ranked 11th, the only woman among the top 50 coaches and managers from both the college and professional ranks in all sports.
“Pat would have had great success at either the men’s or women’s level,” said C.M. Newton, the former basketball coach at the University of Alabama and Vanderbilt University and athletic director at the University of Kentucky.
Newton recalled his first weeks as athletic director in the spring of 1989, as UK struggled to come to grips with an NCAA investigation that threatened to shut down the men’s basketball program.
“I made a list of the eight people I thought could handle the job,” he said. “They didn’t necessarily have to be people I thought would take the job, just people I thought could do the job.”
Pat Riley, then coach of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, was on the list. So was University of Arizona coach Lute Olson. And Rick Pitino, coach of the NBA’s New York Knicks.
Newton eventually hired Pitino, and the brash New Yorker guided the Wildcats to three Final Fours and one national title in eight seasons before returning to the NBA. But years later, as Summitt and Newton were both being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, he told her how close he’d come to interviewing her to coach college basketball’s all-time winningest men’s program.
“So why didn’t you hire me?” she asked.
“I ran out of guts, I guess,” Newton replied.
While Summitt may have enough guts for everyone, guts alone can’t keep her at the helm of the Lady Vols. Guts alone can’t halt the advance of Alzheimer’s.
Though Summitt began the season believing “I think I can coach two or three more years,” the disease can accelerate without warning.
“What I will promise,” her son said, “is that Mom will always be involved in Lady Vols basketball in one capacity or another.”
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...