Pat Summitt has early-onset dementia

Updated: August 25, 2011, 12:45 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Pat Summitt plans to coach the Tennessee women's basketball team "as long as the good Lord is willing," despite recently being diagnosed with early-onset dementia.

"There's not going to be any pity party and I'll make sure of that," she told the Knoxville News Sentinel Monday evening. The News Sentinel and Washington Post first reported Summitt's condition.

In a statement from Summitt released by the university Tuesday, the Hall of Fame coach said she visited with doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., after the end of the 2010-11 basketball season and was diagnosed with the condition during 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 59-year-old Summitt told the newspaper she had been feeling erratic earlier this year, and plans to rely on medication and mental exercises to manage the progressive condition that could lead to Alzheimer's, which her grandmother had.

"I just felt something was different," Summitt said in an interview with The Post's Sally Jenkins. "And at the time I didn't know what I was dealing with. Until I went to Mayo, I couldn't know for sure. But I can remember trying to coach and trying to figure out schemes and whatever and it just wasn't coming to me, like, I would typically say, 'We're gonna do this, and run that.' And it probably caused me to second-guess."

Tennessee athletic director Joan Cronan told The Associated Press that Summitt first thought her symptoms were side effects from medicine she was taking to treat rheumatoid arthritis. She said Summitt appears to be feeling better after starting treatment for the dementia condition and speaking publicly about it.

"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 said longtime assistants Holly Warlick, Dean Lockwood and Mickie DeMoss will take on more responsibilities with the team going forward.

Summitt met with the Lady Volunteers Tuesday afternoon to discuss her diagnosis with them. Junior guard Taber Spani said the meeting was businesslike, with Summitt telling the Lady Vols nothing would get in the way this season of their quest for a ninth national title.

"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 told the AP.

Summitt said she met with local doctors after becoming concerned about her health, and those physicians recommended she undergo a more extensive evaluation.

"Nobody accepts this," her son, Tyler, told the News Sentinel. "And there was anger. 'Why me?' was a question she asked more than once. But then, once she came to terms with it, she treated it like every other challenge she ever had, and is going to do everything she possibly can to keep her mind right and stay to coach."

As college basketball's winningest coach, Summitt has spent 37 seasons at Tennessee and has 1,071 career victories and eight national championships, but the Lady Vols have failed to reach the Final Four since they last won the national championship in 2008.

She also coached the United States to the gold medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics, and won silver as a player in 1976.

"I think it's important to remember that while Pat is a basketball coach, the architect of one of the most storied programs in the history of our sport, she is also a mother, and she's a daughter, and she's a friend," Oklahoma women's basketball coach Sherri Coale said. "Pat's willingness to share this private battle speaks volumes about her strength and her character.

"She's modeled tenacity and endurance and optimism and faith for generations of athletes on the court. I know those athletes, we coaches, women's basketball fans, and sports fans in general will join in returning those gifts to her during this time of need."

Both UT-Knoxville chancellor Jimmy Cheek and 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 news 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."

Former Tennessee men's coach Bruce Pearl said Summitt called him last night and left him a message, telling him the news. Pearl coached Summitt's son, a walk-on, last season.

"She's been incredibly supportive to me," Pearl told ESPN.com Tuesday. "I had a chance to work with her. I had a chance to coach her son. And we're friends for life."

Pat Summitt
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesPat Summitt cuts down the net after Tennessee beat Stanford in 2008 for the Lady Vols' eighth NCAA title.

"I was shocked and saddened to hear about the news regarding Pat Summitt's diagnosis," UConn coach Geno Auriemma, a longtime adversary, said Tuesday afternoon. "There is no doubt in my mind that Pat will take on this challenge as she has all others during her Hall of Fame career -- head-on. I wish her all the best."

Current Los Angeles Sparks star and former Lady Vol Candace Parker offered words of support through Twitter.

"Coach Summitt you never cease to amaze me with your strength and courage," Parker tweeted. "Whenever you face adversity you tackle it head on! True inspiration for me and one of the strongest women I know. I love you and we will handle this together as the Lady Vols always have, like FAMILY."

Summitt is the second widely known basketball coach to have a mental disorder of this nature. Former North Carolina men's basketball coach Dean Smith is battling what his family termed a "progressive neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory."

The 80-year-old Hall of Fame coach has kept a relatively private existence recently, making only cameo appearances around the program.

Information from ESPN.com's Andy Katz and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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