HOOVER, Ala. — Pat Summitt walked into the Riverchase B ballroom at the Wynfrey Hotel on Thursday afternoon, and more than 100 media types instantly parted to make room for her turn at the podium.
“Nothing is different,” the Tennessee women’s basketball coach said in her first major public appearance since she was diagnosed with dementia this past summer. “We just need to cut down the nets.”
Yet other than her yearly goal to add to her record eight NCAA championships, Summitt made everything different at the Southeastern Conference’s annual Basketball Media Day. That included the media throng, which was at least twice as large for her as for any of the league’s 12 men’s coaches.
“I’m sure that’s never happened before,” said SEC director of media relations Craig Pinkerton. “But that says a lot about Pat as a coach and as a person.”
It may have said something about Summitt’s condition that longtime assistant Holly Warlick joined her boss of 27 years at the podium as assistant Mickie DeMoss stood nearby.
Summitt admitted she doesn’t always get to the office as early as she once did.
“I get up, drink a cup of coffee and do about 12 puzzles,” she said of the morning routine designed to keep the dementia at bay. “I may not get there when [the assistants] do anymore. But when I get there my mind is sharp, and that’s what’s important.”
What is important is that this program that Summitt built from scratch starting 37 years ago allows her to retire with grace and dignity.
To that end, Summitt made Warlick the associate head coach, which gave her more flexibility to deal with the disease.
“She is still our head coach, and she is doing a heck of a job,” Warlick said. “She is at every practice; she is heavily recruiting; she is involved in everything we do.”
Well, perhaps not everything.
It seems that during a recent 6 a.m. practice, Summitt turned to Warlick and asked her who had called such an early workout.
When Warlick replied that she had, Summitt shot back, “Hey, I’m still the head coach.”
And judging from Thursday’s interview session, the 59-year-old Summitt intends to hold that post for the foreseeable future as she attempts to add to her 1,071 wins and 16 SEC titles.
“I may be old as dirt, but I’m not ready to retire,” she said. “There will come a time when I’ll say enough is enough. But every day I get up and I want to go to work. That’s what keeps me going.”
Nor has the disease robbed her of her sense of humor.
On the first day of fall practice, she gathered her 38th Lady Vols squad around her and said, “I still remember two things. One, I still know your names. Two, I can still yell.”
And watching Summitt’s brave fight to become the first known person to defeat Alzheimer’s already has inspired her veteran team to make this a very special season.
“Most definitely,” said post player Vicki Baugh, who’s working on a master’s degree in kinesiology this semester.
“We’ve taken her diagnosis and used it as motivation. But not just for her, but for all the other people suffering with dementia.”
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...