WHAT IS IT?
Early-onset Alzheimer's disease is an uncommon form of dementia that strikes people younger than 65. Brain cells degenerate and die. Symptoms include regularly losing items, difficulty executing common tasks, forgetfulness and challenges with basic communication.
Source: Mayo Clinic
KNOXVILLE — Something just wasn't right.
Pat Summitt felt something was amiss with her health, including uncommon memory lapses and moments of confusion, so the University of Tennessee's Hall of Fame women's basketball coach went to her doctors to find out what that might be. That short trip to her doctor in Knoxville turned into a longer trip to the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Following a referral to neurology for a formal evaluation and extensive testing, the doctors there diagnosed Summitt with early onset dementia for Alzheimer's disease. The 59-year-old coach went public with the news Tuesday afternoon in a video statement posted on the UT athletic department's website.
"I plan to continue to be your coach," Summitt said confidently from the sofa in her home with the head of her yellow Labrador retriever resting in her lap. "I realize I may have some limitations with this condition since there will be some good days and some bad days.
"For that reason, I will be relying on my outstanding coaching staff like never before. We have always collaborated on every facet of Lady Vol basketball. Now you will see Holly Warlick, Dean Lockwood and Mickie DeMoss taking on more responsibility as their duties will change significantly."
Summitt has become more than simply a basketball coach over the course of her 37 seasons coaching the Lady Vols. She has had an extraordinary influence beyond the UT campus on women's basketball, which has gone from humble beginnings to a spot in the national spotlight during her career.
"Pat Summitt is our head coach and she will continue to be," said Joan Cronan, UT's interim athletic director who served as the school's women's athletic director for more than 25 years.
"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 has a crystal ball. But I do have a record of knowing what Pat Summitt stands for: excellence, strength, honesty and courage."
Summitt's UT teams have won eight national championships, 15 out of 29 Southeastern Conference regular-season crowns and 13 of 29 conference tournament titles. Summitt has 1,037 career wins, 18 Final Four trips and a gold medal from the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
"It takes amazing courage for Pat to come forward and discuss her health with her players, our fans and the entire country, but that's who she is," UT chancellor Jimmy Cheek said. "Pat Summitt stands for courage and integrity. We will stand behind her and support her in every way possible. We look forward to her continued leadership as the Lady Vols head coach, and I know that even through this adversity she will be an inspiration to all of us."
Reactions to Summitt's diagnosis came from all across the country from coaches, former players, UT associates, media members, fans and even NCAA president Mark Emmert.
"Ours is a friendship born 36 years ago," Georgia coach Andy Landers told the Times Free Press on Tuesday. "Having known and respected Pat throughout that time, I'm saddened to hear this news. Pat has identified the problem and has a game plan to combat it. She certainly has the support of everyone.
"My thoughts and prayers are for her and her loved ones as she meets this challenge head-on with typical Pat Summitt competitiveness."
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's coach Wes Moore said he was "shocked" by Tuesday's announcement, although he had been told Summitt had seemed different.
"I had several people say to me that they thought she didn't look herself, even during the season," Moore said. "Obviously you're disappointed that it's happened, but at the same time sometimes these things seem to happen to the people that are strong enough to handle them."
Brittany Jackson, a former Bradley Central High School star who played at UT from 2001 to '05, last spoke with Summitt during the Final Four in April.
"It's a sad day," Jackson told the Times Free Press. "I know Pat is one of the strongest women, and she's ready for any challenge. This is a time when she's going to need her friends and family. She's dealt with some health issues in the past, so I know she's relieved to know what's going on with her now.
"There are going to be a lot of people there for her."
The diagnosis Summitt faces is uncommon. Just 5 percent of people who have Alzheimer's develop it before the age of 65, according to the Mayo Clinic website. The diagnosis also is heavily genetic in most cases, and Summitt told the Knoxville News Sentinel her grandmother had severe dementia.
According to the Mayo website, the primary symptom of the group of brain disorders that comprise dementia is progressive loss of intellectual and social skills severe enough to impact with daily life. Alzheimer's disease is the degeneration and death of brain cells, which causes a steady decline in memory and mental function.
Summitt has begun undergoing treatment for her diagnosis, said Dr. Amy Bentley of Knoxville's Internal Medicine Associates.
"If anybody is going to battle and fight, it's Pat Summitt," Moore said. "I just saw her out in July recruiting a couple of times, and it seemed like she was doing better."
Summitt certainly seems determined to carry on as normally as possible.
"I love being your coach and the privilege to go to work every day with our outstanding Lady Vol basketball student-athletes," she said in her video statement. "I've been honest and shared my health concerns with you, and now we'll move forward to the business at hand."
Staff writers David Paschall, John Frierson and Gene Henley contributed to this report.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...