The idea was to support Pat Summitt and raise money at the same time.

But what started out as a simple T-shirt has taken awareness of Alzheimer’s disease to new levels.

“This is really changing the face of Alzheimer’s,” Dr. Monica Crane said. “She has done more for Alzheimer’s disease than any person to date. Nationally. Internationally.

“She’s really a hero around the United States. She’s such a leader, a very classy, wonderful individual and what she’s done has created a ripple effect in Alzheimer’s awareness.”

Crane understandably speaks passionately about Alzheimer’s. She is the associate director at the Cole Neuroscience Center in Knoxville, Tenn., and assistant professor of Medicine at the University of Tennessee Medical Center. She also leads an Alzheimer's clinical team and is involved in Alzheimer's disease research.

This is the right thing to do and Pat has meant so much to the university.
-- Jed Dance on producing 'We Back Pat' shirts

Crane said that since Summitt announced to the world that she was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, “we’ve seen a lot more people in early stage come to the clinic and get an assessment where maybe previously they were hesitant.

“It’s overwhelming and we are so happy, Our goal is to have this disease so well treated and diagnosed so early that it becomes a chronic disease and hopefully we’re put out of business. I mean, that’s our ultimate goal. We’ve been quite busy in our clinic and we’re really happy for that.”

Simply put, Summitt is the single greatest figure known to women’s college basketball, an icon for the sport and idol of many. Her achievements as the women’s basketball coach at Tennessee are legendary: Eight NCAA championships. A record of 1037-196, an unbelievable winning percentage of .841, with countless former players who have gone on to professional greatness and from Summitt has spawned a coaching tree that reaches throughout the sport.

But this past spring, wondering why things weren’t right, Summitt, then just shy of her 59th birthday, visited the Mayo Clinic. She learned she had early onset of Alzheimer’s. From the Alzheimer’s Association website, alz.org: “Alzheimer's is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. Symptoms usually develop slowly and get worse over time, becoming severe enough to interfere with daily tasks.”

So in August, Summitt went public. She will continue to coach and her supporters have no doubt she will cope with Alzheimer’s as well as possible.

But they wanted to help, which is where the T-shirts came from.

Much like you’d expect from one of Summitt’s teams, no one involved takes credit for the idea. Everyone just got together and wanted to find a way to support Pat and ultimately they came up with the T-shirts.

On the front they say simply, “We Back Pat.”

On the back it reads, “OUR coach, OUR friend, OUR family.”

And the company that is producing them, taking no profit for its efforts, had cranked out a whopping 23,000 of them in the first month. All that before basketball season. Just wait for the sales when the crowds that fill Thompson-Boling Arena start buying We Back Pat T-shirts.

Jed Dance, whose Bacon and Company is a licensed T-shirt maker for UT and who has printed more than its share of Lady Vols national-title commemoratives, is thrilled to be a part of the project.

“This is the right thing to do and Pat has meant so much to the university,” Dance said. “The thing about Pat is [that she is] first-class in everything she does, whether it’s coaching or recruiting or in this situation. Her first comment was, ‘Look, I don’t want this to be about me.’ But people kept calling and wanted to do something.”

Dance said he heard from various retailers and media outlets who wanted to do a shirt.

“And the bookstore called and said the coaches want to do a special shirt.”

So Dance called Jimmy Delaney, Tennessee’s senior director of marketing and sales, and suggested a meeting.

Show your support

Learn more about 'We Back Pat'
 Summitt discusses her future

“Alzheimer’s of Tennessee said pretty much their phones were ringing off the hook and ‘we have people who want to help and what do we do?’ We said the easiest thing to do right now is a shirt,” Delaney said. “Our fans and Lady Vols fans are tremendous in wanting to show their support so we decided to do a shirt with a generous portion of the shirt going to charity … It was an easy way to help and unified everybody.”

Delaney said they told Summitt about the shirts, she said she wanted to make sure the money stayed in Tennessee.

“UT Medical Center does a lot of the research, which is why she chose them, and Alzheimer’s Tennessee has a lot to do with advocacy and research and they do a lot of programming and touching people one on one,” Delaney said.

“It was really important to Pat that money went there, too.”

The first place they distributed the shirts was in the university bookstore on campus, putting them out on Thursday before UT’s home football opener Sept. 3 against Montana.

“It’s just been overwhelmingly awesome,” Delaney said. “I think it that first weekend for home football, they got the shirts on Thursday night and I think they went through 3,000 shirts.”

The shirts retail for $10, with $4.25 from each shirt is going to research.

“We’ve sold over 10,000,” David Kent of the bookstore said the last week of September. “It’s pretty amazing. They just keep selling. I suspect when we get to basketball season we’ll see another big increase in sales again.

“It’s taking a really difficult situation and in true Pat Summitt fashion, turning it into something remarkable and very positive and we’re proud to be a part of it.”

That was the hope of Dr. Crane.

“The 'We Back Pat' campaign is sending a message that there’s hope and optimism,” Crane said.

“More than the money that’s raised, it’s helping de-stigmatize Alzheimer’s disease. Her message is one really that is very optimistic and very hopeful and she wants to support a community that is in great need.

“We are generally an underserved community, particularly in the surrounding counties. We are hoping to reach out and with some of the funds provide some additional care services and offer scholarships for adult day care and boost our research.”

There is likely much more money to come, considering UT hasn’t even advertised the shirt nor gotten them into stores around the state outside of Knoxville.

“We did it grass roots,” Delaney said. “We really let it go viral on its own to see what the fan base would do and how it would embrace it.  We put a couple of things on Facebook and Twitter but didn’t do a heavy media campaign of any sort. We wanted to let the fans make it their own thing and it’s grown by leaps and bounds.

“It’s just incredible.”