Iron-willed Pat Summitt faces the scariest diagnosis there is

Pat Summitt after winning the 2005 SEC tournament. (AP photo)

Pat Summitt after winning the 2005 SEC tournament. (AP photo)

Cancer would be one thing. People of all ages get cancer, and famous coaches are people, too. Jim Calhoun has had it. George Karl has had it. Jim Valvano and Vince Lombardi died from it.

Cancer is bad, but with most cancers you figure you stand a fighting chance. Pat Summitt doesn’t have cancer. She has been diagnosed with early onset dementia, and in her two-minute videotaped statement to Vol Nation she was brave enough to mention the scariest word there is.

That word: Alzheimer’s.

Pat Summitt is 59. She’s among the half-dozen greatest coaches in the history of college basketball. Auriemma, Knight, Krzyzewski, Smith, Summitt and Wooden — there, in alphabetical order, is your list.

She has been the best thing about Tennessee sports for nearly four decades. I met her in 1977, back when she was Pat Head. Already in her third season as the Lady Vols’ coach, she was coming off a silver medal as a player for the U.S. women’s Olympic team, and even a raging dunce like yours truly could tell she was driven in a way only the best and brightest are.

Women’s college basketball was an afterthought then. The NCAA didn’t crown its first women’s champ until 1982 — anyone recall the old AIAW tournaments? — but from the first, Summitt and her Lady Vols comported themselves as if they were the UCLA of Wooden and Alcindor and Walton. Her teams played the hardest, were possessed of the best fundamentals and took the games the most seriously, and so what if she had to wash the uniforms herself afterward?

She has won eight NCAA titles and 16 SEC championships. Her teams have reached the Final Four 18 times. Over the years people have often wondered if the great women’s coach would have succeeded coaching men, and the answer has always been easy: She’d have won coaching fire ants. She’s that good at what she does.

But now she has early onset dementia. She plans to keep coaching, to try medication and “mental exercises” — doing puzzles before going to bed, that sort of thing. But the reason Alzheimer’s is the most terrifying of all diagnoses is because there’s no cure. You get worse and worse until you forget who those people around you are. You forget who you are.

Dean Smith, whose name appeared before Summitt’s in our above alphabetical Valhalla, is suffering from “a progressive neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory,” according to his family. But Smith is 80, and he last coached in 1997. Pat Summitt told Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post she’d like to keep coaching for three more seasons; at the same time, Summitt conceded there was a time last season when she couldn’t remember what play to call.

In her taped statement, Summitt said she’ll ask her three assistants to do more, but what she faces isn’t just a question of delegating. So long as she coaches now, she’ll be viewed in a way no coach has ever been. For decades we’ve watched her patrol the sideline and clap her hands and loose the Summitt Stare, but now, as cruel as it sounds, we won’t be thinking, “There’s the coach who has won more college games than anyone of any gender.” We’ll be wondering if she’s OK.

Then again … this is Pat Summitt. In September 1990 she’d flown, while nine months’ pregnant, to Pennsylvania to visit a prospect named Michelle Marciniak. Summitt went into labor, and en route home the pilot offered to land the private plane in Richmond.

The Lady Cavaliers of Dawn Staley were then Tennessee’s bitter rival. “I am not,” Summitt famously said, “having this baby in Virginia.”

Tyler Summitt, now a walk-on for Tennessee’s men’s team, was born in Knoxville. Six months later, the Lady Vols beat Virginia in overtime for the NCAA title.

Pat Summitt’s will can bend steel, but this is Alzheimer’s she’s facing. Proud as she is, I don’t believe she’d protest if we say a prayer.

By Mark Bradley

186 comments Add your comment

Paul in NH (formerly RDU)

August 23rd, 2011
5:37 pm

First Dean Smith – now Pat Summitt. Got to wish her the best of luck

Mark Bradley

August 23rd, 2011
5:39 pm

Yes indeed, Paul.

Paul in NH (formerly RDU)

August 23rd, 2011
5:40 pm

Mark – excellent piece. With this one and the one on Ernie Johnson, you are on a roll lately.

todd grantham

August 23rd, 2011
5:43 pm

Heart rending news. 59 years old.

Mountain Dawg

August 23rd, 2011
5:45 pm

Paul in NH (formerly RDU)

August 23rd, 2011
5:46 pm

That’s quite a video on Youtube – amazing guts.

Mountain Dawg

August 23rd, 2011
5:46 pm

Mark Bradley

August 23rd, 2011
5:47 pm

Thanks, Paul. I’m obliged.

todd grantham

August 23rd, 2011
5:48 pm

We were kind of joking the other day about aging. This hits one right at home and makes one realize why we joke about the most important issue we contemplate: no one wants to face the inevitable death sentence and the joking helps keep the Grim Reaper at bay.

atlvol55

August 23rd, 2011
5:49 pm

Truly a sad day in Vol country, but if anyone can prolong this and fight back, it would be Summitt. God bless

atlvol55

August 23rd, 2011
5:51 pm

P.S. Great article Bradley

todd grantham

August 23rd, 2011
5:53 pm

This really puts into perspective how unimportant all things become when compared to survival.

Hubie Green

August 23rd, 2011
5:53 pm

This is a sad day in the world of sports. Coach Summitt is a very brave person to share this news with us. Here’s hoping a cure will be found soon. She is one of the greatest coaches who has ever lived. Here’s hoping she will coach for many more years.

btgt69

August 23rd, 2011
5:54 pm

She and her family will be in my prayers

june

August 23rd, 2011
6:00 pm

Enter your comments here

Big Dawg Fan rooting for Summitt

August 23rd, 2011
6:01 pm

Excellent piece Mark…about an extremely classy lady. I met Coach Summitt on the sidelines just before halftime in Knoxville at a UGA/UT game. I told her how much I respected her as a coach and that I enjoyed watching her team play…even though they ‘were’ Tennessee. She simply smiled and said “why thank you….that’s a very nice thing to say”. We then went on to have a good 2 minute conversation just before she and her team walked on the field to accept their ump-teenth SEC Championship recognition. Will never forget her sincerity and class. Here’s to wishing her well, and many more healthy seasons on the court. Praying for ya Coach Pat!

Rick

August 23rd, 2011
6:01 pm

At half mental capacity, she is still a better womens basketball coach than Andy Landers.

JAWJeRDAWG

August 23rd, 2011
6:02 pm

Thank you, Coach Summit, for sharing your plight with us. Best wishes, and God bless.

Mark Bradley

August 23rd, 2011
6:06 pm

Thanks, atlvol.

JAWJeRDAWG

August 23rd, 2011
6:07 pm

Meant no disrespect to the coach: Summitt, not Summit. Again, best wishes for a long and healthier career.

That is a classless thing to say, Rick

August 23rd, 2011
6:11 pm

This is a sad occasion and not one to be cluttered with tasteless shots like that. From what I have read, she and Andy have much respect for each other.

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ormewood

August 23rd, 2011
6:21 pm

Great piece, Mark. Makes all of this stuff regarding off-field shenanigans and potential conference realignment seem pretty trivial.

Best wishes to Coach Summitt from a long-time admirer.

Badgerina

August 23rd, 2011
6:25 pm

Good luck Pat Summit.

Great column. Reminds me of of the one you wrote on Barkley.

DREWDOWN77

August 23rd, 2011
6:33 pm

WELL SAID, MARK!!

Spanky

August 23rd, 2011
6:33 pm

Mark, once again, you hit the nail on the head!…stay classy!

dawg4u

August 23rd, 2011
6:40 pm

Fine article Mark. This is such sad news. Prayers go out to Pat Summit and family and she is a battler for sure. It really puts sports into perspective reading about her diagnosis. She is a class act and agree that she is in that John Wooden class of coaches.

MightyQuinn

August 23rd, 2011
6:42 pm

Great column Mark. My father succumbed to Alzhiemer’s on January 31, 2007. My mother kept him at home until the day before his death, but it took a tremendous toll on her, and in June of 2009 suffered a stroke and is now nonverbal. Dementia is the cruel joke of better medical care; our quantity of life is increased but our quality is reduced. I would encourage everyone to support the Alzheimers Association. The disease is called “The Long Goodbye” for good reason.

JSS

August 23rd, 2011
6:45 pm

It is “The Summit” for a reason! Coach Summit has made the game a large part of her life, now I know the game will rally to her side like it did for Coaches Valvano and Yow…

She has a big heart, bigger than most will ever know!

Angela beck

August 23rd, 2011
6:57 pm

My heart goes out to Pat and her immediate family and the entire Lady Vols family! My grandmother, mother, and several aunts all died of
Alzheimers. Pat’s bravery provides strength to all who face this terrible disease! I have always admired Pat, she is truly an amazing woman!

Delbert D.

August 23rd, 2011
7:08 pm

I lost my mother’s sister last week to Alzheimer’s, and her brother is debilitated by it now. Fortunately, they had long productive lives before it hit. My grandmother lived with it for over 15 years. It is a terrible malady, and early onset is so tragic.

Thanks for writing this, Mark.

PTC DAWG

August 23rd, 2011
7:10 pm

Godspeed to Pat Summitt and her Family.

Beast from the East

August 23rd, 2011
7:11 pm

Having watched my grandmother go through this, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone…..especially someone that has done so much for so many young people. God bless you, Coach.

Fan of the Game

August 23rd, 2011
7:13 pm

Pat Summitt is a winner and she will handle this because she is a competitor. God bless her and her family, immediate and the Vol family. Our thoughts and prayers are with her.

luvthosedawgs68

August 23rd, 2011
7:15 pm

I have always admired Coach Summitt for her excellence in not only coaching her players, but demanding that they be at their best wherever they were while playing for Tennessee. As classy a coach as there ever has been, in any sport!

Dennis Green

August 23rd, 2011
7:15 pm

Amen Mark. Great Piece

Hillbilly D

August 23rd, 2011
7:21 pm

I’ve seen people go through this and it’s very bad. Best wishes to her and her family.

Dawg4life

August 23rd, 2011
7:22 pm

All of us in Dawg Nation need to lift up Coach Pat in our prayers.

Terry Funk

August 23rd, 2011
7:23 pm

my grandmother has dementia…it’s so sad when your body out lives ur mind.. (probably a bad example Pat is only 59) excellent post Mr. Bradley…Pat Summit can flat out coach..and as luv stated is as intense/demanding as anyone…

atlkeith

August 23rd, 2011
7:30 pm

Classy as always Mark,,,thank you!

felix the cat

August 23rd, 2011
7:35 pm

Tough article to write Mark. From the Dawg Nation Good Luck and Get well soon Pat!

bamaguy

August 23rd, 2011
7:40 pm

When women’s basketball started being profitable, big name schools turned to male coaches. Pat Summit took them all on and kicked their a*s.

I bleed crimson, but my hat, and my heart, are off to the classiest person to grace NCAA athletics in my lifetime. God be with you, Pat.

NCMtn Dawg

August 23rd, 2011
7:43 pm

I will pray for you Coach Summit. When the UGA men’s team was looking for a new coach, I thought of her and said “why not?” That lady has been a blessing and a role model for so many women. We could all be better by trying to live up to your example. Godspeed and good luck next season!

BC VOL

August 23rd, 2011
7:45 pm

The VOL NATION is behind you, Pat. Be strong and fight hard. We need you and love you.

DougsMugs

August 23rd, 2011
7:49 pm

I am so sorry. We have had this in our family and it is devastating for everyone.

Research for cures to diseases that are no-fault, is where our billions should be spent, instead of spending so much for diseases that are brought on by our own behaviors or trillions for wasteful Obamacare.

yearofthedawg

August 23rd, 2011
7:49 pm

I’m as big a UGA fan as there is, but this saddens me no end. Pat came to Buford last year to watch Andraya Carter and was gracious enough to take the time to have a picture made with my daughter. Its been a pleasure watching her teams over the years, even though they wear the wrong colors. Prayers to her and her family.

S'paw_99

August 23rd, 2011
7:51 pm

Another very good piece (Ernie Sr) Mark. I think she’s one Coach that everyone respects, regardless of what team you’re for.

And she Definitely could Coach Men if she wanted. Most of the time, I’m not sure the guys would listen to a lady, but her Resume speaks for itself. I already heard that when she walks in while the guys are practicing, the place goes silent.

wagster1969

August 23rd, 2011
8:01 pm

The BULLDAWG NATION is behind you as well Coach Summit. My thoughts & prayers are with you.

Timbo

August 23rd, 2011
8:08 pm

very nice article.

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