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Tennessee Volunteers legendary coach Pat Summitt has early onset dementia

Pat Summitt, yelling at an official at a game last season, says she first blamed her memory issues on her medication for arthritis.

Associated Press

Pat Summitt, yelling at an official at a game last season, says she first blamed her memory issues on her medication for arthritis.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Pat Summitt struggled for several months with how to tell the women's basketball players at Tennessee, recruits and fans that she was having memory loss problems.

Finally, her son Tyler helped convince her to open up.

The Hall of Fame coach, 59, who has the most college basketball wins of all time, surprisingly said Tuesday she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia — the Alzheimer's type.

Step down after 37 seasons? Not a chance.

"I plan to continue to be your coach," she said in a statement.

Tennessee athletic director Joan Cronan said Summitt initially chalked up her memory problems during last season to side effects from medicine she was taking for rheumatoid arthritis. She forgot things at crucial points in games and struggled to keep track of meeting times. She grew so confused that on a few days she simply stayed home from work.

The coach consulted local doctors, who recommended a more extensive evaluation. In May, she went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where doctors performed tests.

Summitt's reaction was anger, then determination. According to Sally Jenkins, a Washington Post columnist and a close friend of Summitt, doctors at the Mayo Clinic advised the coach to retire immediately and she responded: "Do you have any idea who you're dealing with?"

Summitt has spent 37 seasons at Tennessee and has 1,071 victories — a record for the men's or women's game — and eight national championships, with the most recent coming in the 2008 Final Four in Tampa.

Yet Summitt was unsure when to step forward until a student at Tennessee got her to talk about it.

Her 20-year-old son.

"Tyler has been so courageous in this," said Summitt's longtime associate head coach, Holly Warlick. "He encouraged her to come forward."

Tyler went to the Mayo Clinic with his mother. And he said her revelation is a life lesson for everyone.

"It seems like she teaches me something new every day, and she is currently giving me one of the best life lessons of all: to have the courage to be open, honest, and face the truth," he said.

Summitt's family and closest confidants have known about her condition since she first learned of it. Summitt revealed the news publicly to the Washington Post and Knoxville News Sentinel. She told the Vols on Tuesday afternoon in a team meeting.

Junior guard Taber Spani said the meeting was business-like, with Summitt calmly saying nothing would get in the way for their quest of a ninth national title this season.

Reaction to the news poured in from far and wide with rival coach Geno Auriemma of Connecticut saying in a statement from Italy, "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."

Florida coach Amanda Butler, a native of Tennessee, said: "To say that I was shocked or upset when I learned of Pat Summitt's condition is an understatement. … Pat is a powerful figure in Tennessee, but what she's done on a nation level to gain notoriety for the sport is amazing."

Tennessee Volunteers legendary coach Pat Summitt has early onset dementia 08/23/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 23, 2011 10:46pm]
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