During this year’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament, I found myself torn when Tennessee played Baylor in the Elite Eight match-up. I had watched Baylor’s season with fascination mixed with awe (including getting to see them play once in person). But I found myself drawn to rooting for the Lady Volunteers because of Coach Pat Summitt’s fortitude in the face of a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s. Baylor prevailed that day in the score, but Coach Summitt won the hearts of everyone watching that game. I felt tears well in my eyes as I watched Baylor’s coach Kim Mulkey, uncharacteristically teary-eyed, hug Coach Summitt at game’s end and could see her whisper, “I love you” into the Tennessee legend’s ear.
And that outpouring of love continues now that Coach Summitt has tendered her resignation as head coach and will instead serve as coach emeritus. You hear it in the interviews from her fellow coaches. You read about it in the respectful tones that sports journalists are taking in describing her career. And you can see it on Facebook posts from people who never met Coach Summitt. After watching Coach Summitt's press conference announcing her resignation, one of my Facebook friends posted, “Wow! Classy doesn't quite do her justice.”
I am sure that this past season has been a difficult one for Coach Summitt and those involved in the women’s basketball program. Dan Fleser wrote, “After announcing her diagnosis last August, Summitt continued to coach with the blessing of university officials.” Although you couldn’t see it when watching Tennessee play, I’ve got a hunch – based on what I saw watching my mother and other friends battle this terrible disease -- that that season can’t have been easy for Coach Summitt. First of all, consider the stress level caused by leading a high-powered athletic program where there are ingrained expectations of reaching the NCAA tournament and making a bonafide run to hold the NCAA championship trophy. Then there’s the travel. Even though she was in an early stage of the disease, going to different places – arenas as well as hotel rooms -- for games had to be discombobulating. It’s at this stage that many people with dementia find they really need routine and continuity. And Coach Summitt also faced the need to remain totally in the present during a game, a task that is increasingly difficult as dementia progresses.
Thanks to her staff, she was able to make it through the grind. ESPN's Michelle Voepel reported that Coach Summitt delegated many duties during the season to Associate Coach Holly Warlick, who called the plays during the Lady Vols’ games and handled postgame interviews. “Yet Summitt's every move was studied to see how she felt, down to how many officials she yelled at or her icy glares at a player while overseeing a Division I program with a busy national travel schedule,” ESPN reported. “After losing to eventual national champ Baylor in a regional final, Warlick's tears during the postgame news conference gave a glimpse of how exhausting the season had been and the possibility it was Summitt's last game.”