KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee's Pat Summitt plans to coach “as long as the good Lord is willing” despite recently being diagnosed with early onset dementia.
In a statement from Summitt released by the university on Tuesday, the Hall of Fame coach said she visited with doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, after the end of the 2010-11 basketball season ended and was diagnosed with the condition over the summer.
“I plan to continue to be your coach,” Summitt said. “Obviously, I realize I may have some limitations with this condition since there will be some good days and some bad days.”
The Knoxville News Sentinel first reported Summitt's condition.
The 59-year-old Summitt told the newspaper she plans to rely on medication and mental exercises to manage the progressive condition that could lead to Alzheimer's and planned to inform the current Lady Volunteers of her diagnosis on Tuesday afternoon in a team meeting.
Summitt said longtime assistants Holly Warlick, Dean Lockwood and Mickie DeMoss will take on more responsibilities with the team going forward.
As college basketball's winningest coach, Summitt has spent 37 seasons at Tennessee and has 1,071 career victories and eight national championships. The Lady Vols have failed to reach the Final Four since they last won the national championship in 2008.
Both UT-Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and athletics director Joan Cronan pledged their support of Summitt's decision to continue coaching.
“Pat Summitt is our head coach and she will continue to be,” Cronan said. “She is an icon not only for women's basketball but for all of women's athletics. For Pat to stand-up and share her health new is just a continuing example of her courage. Life is an unknown and none of us have a crystal ball. But I do have a record of knowing what Pat Summitt stands for; excellence, strength, honesty and courage.”
Summitt said she met with local doctors after becoming concerned about her health and those physicians recommended she undergo a more extensive evaluation.
Summitt told the News Sentinel that her maternal grandmother had suffered from severe dementia.
“Pat came to us with concerns about her health and our preliminary evaluation was suggestive of dementia. Because of her young age, Pat was referred to neurology for formal evaluation,” Dr. Amy Bentley, with Knoxville's Internal Medicine Associates, said in a statement. “After extensive testing, a diagnosis of early Alzheimer's was made and appropriate treatment was initiated.”
Nashville's News 2 spoke with the Mid-South chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, who said it is not surprising that a woman Summitt's age faces the disease.
“Its not an older disease,” Tiffany Cloud-Mann said, adding, “Someone may stay in the beginning stages for several years whereas the next person may be in those beginning stages for a year or two and then quickly progress to the latter stages of the disease.”
The association praised Summitt for her courage to announce she is battling the disease.
“Hearing someone like Pat come out and tell her story will give maybe others courage to do that as well the more we know the more we might be closer to finding a cure,” Cloud-Mann said.
Summitt's brother told Nashville's News 2 his sister's announcement has been difficult for the family.
“[It has] been troubling for the family because she is so young,” Tommy Head said, adding, “[I believe my younger sister] can still handle the duties of coaching.”
Many coaches from across the country have offered their support to the women's head coach.
LSU Women's Basketball Coach and former Lady Vols player Nikki Caldwell said she considers Summitt a friend and mentor.
“I've known Coach Summitt for 23 years and there has never been a fight that she's backed down from. All of us who have played or coached under her leadership, we know she will take this fight on like she does with every task. She will do it with dignity, toughness, courage and an unwavering commitment. Those are the same qualities she has always expected and instilled in her players for 37 years at Tennessee,” she said.
Vanderbilt University's women's head basketball coach Melanie Balcomb said she considers Summitt a rival, but also a dear friend.
“You want to see her keep coaching and I hope Pat can keep coaching for as long as she wants to. You don't want to see someone struggle in the public and she's such a public figure, she's and icon and a role model,” she said.
The Lady Vols and staff are rallying around their beloved coach.
“For Pat to have the courage to come out and say she has a form of dementia is huge and our team did nothing but rally around her,” Assistant Coach Halley Warlick said.
Junior guard Taber Spani added, “The way she handled it and the fighting attitude, she was already in there talking about winning number three and coaching this and that and seeing that as an inspiration.”