Facing Alzheimer’s, Pat Summit as formidable as ever

Travis Nicholson
August 31, 2011

There is success in college basketball, and then there is Pat Summit.

The legendary coach is approaching her fourth decade as head coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols, and her astonishing 84.33% winning percentage makes her the all-time winningest coach in the history of NCAA basketball.

Her reputation precedes her as a tireless taskmasker, and although she’s been reported to have cooled down in recent years, it’s that strength of will that has led her squad to 16 SEC championships, 18 Final Fours and eight national championships, the most recent coming back-to-back in 2007 and 2008.

In 1997-98, with Summit at the helm, the Vols managed a perfect 39-0 season, winning the national championship as the team many consider the best ever. It’s no wonder she was also named the Naismith Women’s Coach of the 20th Century.

Having won 1,071 games over the course of her 28-year tenure, the Lady Vols will be charging into the 2011-12 season trying to stave off what would only be her 200th loss.

This season, when Summit’s team takes to the court on Nov. 1, her focus will inevitably be on the pursuit of another national championship. Many else, however, will wonder what the future will have in store considering her shocking admission earlier this month.

[php snippet=1]

On Aug. 23, Summit announced that at the age of 59, she is suffering from early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. She plans to remain head coach of the Lady Vols while she manages her disease.

From her home in Knoxville, TN, Summit addressed her fans and the national media.

“The doctors at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed me with an early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, at the age of 59.”

She later added that she plans to remain the Lady Vols coach “as long as the good Lord is willing.”

The decision is nothing short of courageous. Dementia, Alzheimer’s type, is an irreversible brain disease that destroys cognitive function and memory recall ability. For a coach with such a strong command of her squad and whose confidence has been famously unshakeable, Summit’s admissions to moments of memory lapse and frustration last season are unnerving.

While in the process of seeing doctors at the Mayo Clinic and undergoing a battery of tests (including an MRI, PET scan, neuro-psychological exam and spinal tap), Summit was in a state of denial. She accepted the affliction only when tests came back conclusive.

It is in her public declaration of her struggles this month that Summit is regaining her confidence.

The delicate issue at hand, despite her efforts to forge ahead, is how much longer Summit can effectively remain head coach of the storied program.

Even she, the strongest-willed and most respected in the game, will not overcome the disease’s cold grasp because nobody does. Naturally there will be moments when it inhibits her from running her team, if it hasn’t already. Summit disclosed to the Washington Post that she sometimes “draw blanks” when calling offensive sets from the sidelines.

For now, Summit is relying on puzzles and other mind games to keep herself sharp, although she also admits that she’ll rely more on her long-time assistant coaches Holly Warlick and Mickie DeMoss in the coming year. But, even with the support of her family, the University of Tennessee and national support from fans and members of the NCAA, her battle will not be easy.

Alzheimer’s is an ugly disease. It’s also an indiscriminate one that affects superstar sports icons and the men and women who watch them alike. Having personally dealt with a grandmother diagnosed with the disease, I’ve learned from experience just how ugly it can get. Slowly but surely, it not only robs loved ones of their memories but also their dignity. For family members and friends, and in Summit’s case her fans and admirers, it’s extremely difficult to watch the slow degradation of their mind and spirit.

Inevitably, someone once full of life and vibrancy becomes a shell of their former self, their memories and life stolen cruelly from within reach.

There are few things harder to deal with than preparing to visit a loved one struggling with the affliction, and hoping that this time they’ll recognize you. Sometimes they do, but over time, they eventually don’t.

For someone who has inspired so many over the course of the last four decades, Summit’s courage in her very public battle against such an awful disease will inspire many more, including the five million of her fellow Americans that suffer from Alzheimer’s currently. Relative to other high-profile afflictions, dementia and Alzheimer’s awareness is significantly lower than that of cancer and heart disease, for example.

This high-profile bout with Alzheimer’s could raise awareness, and ultimately an influx of research and money to combat the disease that is poised to become a much more significant problem with an aging North American population.

At the very least, Summit’s admission will alleviate some of the clouds that shroud the disease, pushing it out of the darkness and into the light.

Until then, the living lend at Tennessee is also quite happy to switch the topic from her illness to her Lady Vols’ competitive chances in what should be an exciting season. In an interview with GoVolsXtra.com, the sentiment was classic Pat Summit.

“There’s not going to be any pity party and I’ll make sure of that.”

For now, the woman sounds like the undeniable leader she has always been.

“I feel better just knowing what I’m dealing with,” she said in the interview. “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.”

It may be her uncertain future that defines her courage, but what’s most important is that we let such a legend like Pat Summit decide her own fate.

[php snippet=1]

The Author:

Travis Nicholson

Travis Nicholson is a writer and graphic designer who started writing online in the 90s amidst a haze of bad haircuts and NBA Jam on the shores of Lake Erie.