I don’t normally get nervous when interviewing a coach, no matter their stature nor their demeanor nor their mood, even after a tough loss.
But this was different.
I’d known Pat Summitt for nearly 30 years and talked to her so many times — hell, once at a summertime dinner at LSU honoring the late Sue Gunter, Summitt insisted on a hug before anything — and this was the media’s first time to see her in person since the big announcement.
At Southeastern Conference Basketball Media Day on Oct. 27, Summitt took her seat in the big room before a crowd of reporters and cameras. And there was an uncomfortable silence as she looked at us and smiled.
So I asked the greatest women’s basketball coach of all time, the Tennessee Lady Vols legend who has not only won eight national championships but who has simply set the bar higher than anyone else, “Pat, everyone wants to know. How you doing? How you feeling?”
She replied quickly. “Feeling great.”
Suddenly the air came back into the room. Two words was all it took to put everyone else at ease.
“She’s amazing,” Sally Bell said later. Bell, the SEC coordinator of women’s officials has known Summitt her entire career. “That’s all you can say. It makes me feel so good to see her.”
That’s how we all seemed to react.
Summitt was diagnosed earlier this summer with early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. She’s only 59 and, with the support of the University of Tennessee, has no intention of stepping aside. In just a few months, she’s added to her lofty status in the sports world by going public with her battle and approach to it.
“I’m not going to hide anything,” Summitt said. “Telling the truth is the right way to go so I wasn’t going to cover anything up.”
“It probably would have surprised me more if she had not said anything,” said Nell Fortner, the Auburn coach who is such a good friend with Summitt they own a Florida condo together. “She’s never one to run and hide from anything.”
Alzheimer’s Tennessee said the number of people asking for an evaluation has skyrocketed. Contributions, many through the sale of the “We Back Pat” T-shirts, has blown away everyone.
|Red denotes national championship|
“Obviously it’s been amazing, all across the country,” Summitt said. “It’s been incredible but hopefully it will help people out with dementia. We’re all about doing the right thing. That’s where I am.”
Associate head coach Holly Warlick accompanied her to the interview, at first giving the impression that Summitt couldn’t talk for herself.
She was sharp as can be, is even more good humored than before, and was so comfortable talking as much about Alzheimer’s as basketball and one of her true loves, cooking. Barbecuing is her specialty, she said, but offered up a corn recipe to the media.
Summitt has battled rheumatoid arthritis the past few years and Fortner said she expects Summitt to fight Alzheimer’s the same way. “She seems like the same Pat to me,” Fortner said. “There’s no difference in a conversation with her.”
“She’s a lot looser than she used to be,” said Mickey DeMoss, Summitt’s longtime friend and assistant coach. “She’s cracked more jokes in the last six months than the 18 years I’ve worked for her previously. She’s lightened up a lot.”
“She’s still very demanding in practice with a no-nonsense approach, but she jokes with the kids more and lets them get to know her a bit more.”
Early in the interview session Warlick reached over for the mic.
“The first question everybody’s asked me is, ‘How is Pat doing.’ And I always say that she’s fine, she attends every practice, she’s heavily recruiting, she’s involved in absolutely everything we do. In her announcement to the team she said, ‘I remember two things: I remember your name and I remember that I can still yell at you.’”
Warlick laughed. Summitt laughed. We all did.
“She’s still our head coach and she’s doing a heck of a job.”
DeMoss was head coach at Florida before becoming an assistant to Summitt from 1985-2003. She was head coach at Kentucky from 2003-07 and an assistant at Texas before returning to Tennessee last season.
“She’s always delegated and that’s why she has so many coaches out there as head coaches, former players, former assistants,” DeMoss said. “She’s a great leader and great leaders train their people right. She’s alwaycs delegated so we’re qualified to step in and do what she needs.”
Summitt said as much a few times that day. “It’s great to have that support,” she said.
“We’re like family. Every day I can’t wait to get on the court. I’m not ready to retire. Somebody threw that out there today. I might be old as dirt when I’m still trying to win ballgames. But I do have a great staff and right now we’re just focused on this season.”
Each morning Summitt actually focuses on mind games.
“You have to have a game plan in everything you do,” Summitt said. “I wake up, I go and drink my coffee and I do about 12 puzzles before I ever go into the office.
“That’s just my daily routine. The games are fun. But sometimes they’re hard,” she added with a laugh.
“I’ve had my mother doing them and she’s like, ‘These are hard.’ But when I get into the office, my mind’s sharp and that’s important.“
Summitt is working out more than before and spends a little less time in the office.
“I went to the Mayo Clinic and that’s where I was diagnosed. Dr. [Ronald] Peterson is head of the Mayo Clinic and he told me, ‘You can coach as long as you want to coach.’ The medication I’m on and he have been super.
“That doesn’t mean I’m gonna coach for another 25 years.”
And she laughed again.
Summitt, who starts her 38th season on Nov. 13 when the Lady Vols play host to Pepperdine, has an overall record of 1,071-199. She said she hadn’t thought about retirement before her diagnosis and has no target now.
Georgia coach Andy Landers has known Summitt nearly 40 years. “She’s on the front end of this thing and hopefully she’ll be on the front end of this thing the rest of her life,” he said.
“How about the flip side? What if she said I’m done coaching and then found out she was fine for like the next 10 years? That would be regretful. Then we would have lost one of the game’s great coaches and she’d be kicking herself. She’s gonna know and the people around her are gonna know if the day comes.”
Not in the near future. It would be hard to imagine the Lady Vols, the SEC, even college basketball without Summitt.
“She is the grandma-ma. You just think she’s going to be in the women’s game forever,” Fortner said.
“I want to get up and I want to go to work,” Summitt said. “That keeps me going.”
And that keeps the rest of us happy.