Knoxville, Tenn. Pat Summitt struggled for several months with how to tell the women’s basketball players at Tennessee, recruits and fans that she was having memory loss problems.
Finally, her son Tyler helped convince her to open up.
The 59-year-old Hall of Fame coach surprised the sports world Tuesday by saying she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia — the Alzheimer’s type.
Step down after 37 seasons? Not a chance.
“I plan to continue to be your coach,” she said in a statement released by the university. “Obviously, I realize I may have some limitations with this condition since there will be some good days and some bad days.”
Tennessee athletics director Joan Cronan said Summitt, 59, initially chalked up her memory problems to side effects from medicine she was taking to treat rheumatoid arthritis. The coach first consulted local doctors, who recommended she undergo a more extensive evaluation. In May, she traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where doctors performed a spinal tap and other tests that eventually produced the diagnosis.
Summitt’s first reaction was anger, but that soon gave way to determination.
“She’s ready to fight this and move on,” Cronan said. “She had to come to grips with how she wanted to face it.”
Summitt’s family and closest confidants have known about her condition since she first learned of it, but the Hall of Fame coach first revealed the news publically to the Washington Post and Knoxville News Sentinel. She informed the Lady Vols about her diagnosis in a team meeting on Tuesday afternoon.
Junior guard Taber Spani said the meeting was business-like, with Summitt calmly telling the Lady Vols nothing would get in the way for their quest of a ninth national title this season.
“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,” Spani said.
Summitt’s longtime associate head coach Holly Warlick, with fellow Lady Vols assistants Dean Lockwood and Mickie DeMoss, will assume extra responsibilities as needed to help Summitt.
As college basketball’s winningest coach, Summitt has spent 37 seasons at Tennessee and has 1,071 career victories and eight national championships.