Weekly column in the Washington Times Communities by Laurie Edwards-Tate
Ronald Reagan. Glen Campbell. Perry Como.
Now Alzheimer’s disease has cut short another career. Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, perhaps the greatest women’s coach in any sport in history, is stepping aside at age 59 due to her diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2011.
Pat Summit revealed her condition on August 23, and had been passing her duties this basketball season to her coaching staff, especially longtime assistant Holly Warlick who has worked with Summitt for 27 years. Tennessee released a statement on Wednesday announcing the move and Warlick’s promotion.
And so another family, another community, feels the impact from this disease.
Alzheimer’s Disease doesn’t discriminate when it attacks. It seems we learn every day about another person affected, whether someone well-known like Summitt, or someone you know down the street. People from all walks of life are diagnosed every day.
Less than a year ago, singer Glen Campbell announced in June 2011 that he too was living with Alzheimer’s disease. He never expected to perform again, but he has released a new album and continues to tour. His fans have warmly embraced him and have encouraged him with their support. Ironically he is more popular today than in decades.
Summitt is receiving a similar outpouring of support. When she first revealed her diagnosis, she said she had been trying to come to terms with her symptoms, which had caused her problems with memory loss both on and off the court during the previous season. Alzheimer’s disease destroys cognitive abilities over time.
Going forward, Summitt will report to the athletic director and help the women’s program she guided to eight national titles. Summitt will take the title of “head coach emeritus.” She will also devote time to her Pat Summitt Foundation Fund, raising money for research.
Much of the news coverage has focused on Summitt’s accomplishments in basketball. Impressive seems a small word to describe them.
- Summitt won 1,098 games and eight national championships, trailing only UCLA’s John Wooden in Division I basketball (both men’s and women’) in a career that spanned 38 seasons.
- All-time leader in Division I basketball coaching wins, currently 171 more than Duke head men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and 198 more than women’s basketball coaching legend Jody Conradt.
- Her teams made 31 NCAA Tournament appearances, appearing in every one since 1982. During her time, Tennessee never failed to reach the NCAA tournament, never received a seed lower than Number 5 and reached 18 Final Fours, the most in NCAA women’s division I basketball history.
- Summitt coached 135 games in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, and won 112 of them (83% winning percentage). Both of those are far more than any other women’s basketball coach.
- She coached 12 Olympians at Tennessee, and also won a Gold Medal as head coach of Team USA in 1984. She also coached 20 All-Americans.
- Off the court, every one of Summit’s players who completed her eligibility at Tennessee has graduated with a college degree, and 74 former players, assistants, graduate assistants, team managers and directors of basketball operations are among the coaching ranks at every level of basketball.
In the statement issued by the university, Summitt said, “I’ve loved being the head coach at Tennessee for 38 years, but I recognize that the time has come to move into the future and to step into a new role…
“I would like to emphasize that I fully intend to continue working as head coach emeritus, mentoring and teaching life skills to our players, and I will continue my active role as a spokesperson in the fight against Alzheimer’s through the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund.”
Tennessee vice chancellor and athletic director Dave Hart called Summitt “an inspiration to everyone.”
“It is extremely difficult to adequately express what Pat Summitt has meant to the University of Tennessee, the sport of basketball, and the growth of women’s athletics nationally,” Hart said. “She is an icon who does not view herself in that light, and her legacy is well-defined and everlasting. Just like there will never be another John Wooden, there will never be another Pat Summitt.”
So now Summitt finds herself inducted against her will into the ranks of a dubious Hall of Fame, the list of well-known individuals including politicians, athletes, artists, and leaders with Alzheimer’s disease.
For years, Summitt has instilled in her players the power of a positive attitude. It is central to the principles that have guided her program at Tennessee for decades, her rules for success that she calls the Definite Dozen. Summitt now has the opportunity to practice what she has preached with such success. Pat Summitt is not feeling sorry for herself. Pat Summitt is taking action.
There is little doubt Summitt will devote her energy and focus into beating Alzheimer’s disease through her foundation and through the bully pulpit afforded a famous name. If Summitt is even half as successful in advancing research into finding treatments and a cure for Alzheimer’s disease as she was defeating her opponents on the basketball court, we are sure to win the game. This fight now has a new and powerful ally, and those who care about this cause and the millions of people affected by this disease are grateful to have Pat Summitt on our team.
Until next time, enjoy the ride in good health!