Legendary Coach Pat Summitt Stares Down Dementia

University of Tennessee's Pat Summitt sees Alzheimers as a beatable opponent.

ByAlison Lynn
November 01, 2011, 2:03 PM

Nov. 4, 2011 — -- Despite a devastating diagnosis, legendary women's basketball coach Pat Summitt is determined to stay in the game.

"I don't want to sit around the house. I want to be out there," Summitt told ABC News' Robin Roberts in an exclusive interview. "I want to go to practice. I want to be in the huddles. That's me."

Summitt is the winningest coach in college basketball history, taking the University of Tennessee's Lady Vols to more victories than any college coach for any basketball team, men's or women's. But last August, Summitt, 59, revealed she was facing her toughest opponent yet: early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type -- a condition for which there is no cure.

Summitt broke the news to her staff and her team before telling the world. The coach known for her steely blue eyes was emotional at first, but that didn't last, said Lady Vols associate head coach Holly Warlick.

"(She) said, 'It's not a pity party. And we're going to get through this,'" Warlick remembered.

Summitt said she first realized something was wrong when she'd wake up feeling disoriented.

"I'd wake up in the morning and I would think, 'Where am I?' I'd have to gather myself," she said. "And then I just didn't feel right."

Last spring, Summitt sought out a leading Alzheimer's specialist at the Mayo Clinic, who confirmed her worst fears.

"Obviously I was very disappointed," Summitt said. "I hate to sound this way but, 'Why me? Why me with dementia?'"

But Summitt didn't despair for long.

"It hurt me but I go, 'Well, I got to do it. I got to deal with it,'" she said.

Her only child, son Tyler, 21, and her team keep her going, Summitt said.

"It just keeps my brain working, you know," she said of coaching. "I'm active, doing things."

Summitt's drive began at an early age. Raised on a farm in Henrietta, Tenn., she played basketball with her three older brothers at night, but only after her farm chores were done for the day.

"When you grow up on a dairy farm, cows don't take a day off. So you work every day and my dad always said, 'No one can outwork you,'" she said.

PHOTOS: Pat Summitt -- From Tow-Headed Tot to Basketball Powerhouse

When she was named head coach of the University of Tennessee women's team in 1974, Summitt was just 22, barely older than her players. The university had originally offered Summitt an assistant coaching job but promptly promoted her when the team's head coach announced she was taking a sabbatical.

In those early days under Title 9 -- the landmark federal law that led schools and colleges to dramatically increase access to sports and other programs for women -- women's basketball games weren't televised and attendance was poor. The Lady Vols were so strapped for cash that Summitt washed her players' uniforms at home and drove the team to games.

"I remember nights I was driving the van and I'm about to go to sleep, and I'd just roll down the window and stick my head out," Summitt said, laughing.

Nearly four decades later, the University of Tennessee has a world class women's basketball program with players drawn by the allure of being coached by a legend.

"It's so surreal when you come walking in on this recruiting visit and you're next to her," remembered player Taber Spani.

Being the head coach in a competitive basketball program requires long hours of practice sessions, a grueling travel schedule and the intense pressure of games played in a national spotlight. It's a tough job for a perfectly healthy person, let alone someone whose memory is under attack by dementia.

Can Summitt Beat Fatal Disease?

The job's duties, said Dr. Sam Gandy, "are often just the opposite of what you would prescribe for someone with Alzheimer's disease."

Gandy, an expert in Alzheimer's disease at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, is blunt in his explanation of the typical Alzheimer's prognosis.

"This is a fatal disease. This is like cancer. This kills people by robbing them of their cortex of the brain, the surface of the brain that's used for thinking," he said.

The average time from "diagnosis to death," he said, is 10 years.

But even he sees a silver lining for Summitt.

"Certainly in many diseases, having an upbeat outlook, trying to maintain a positive view of things does seem to effect the prognosis. So I think she should do what she wants to do. She should go for what she wants to go for," he said.

Summitt says she sees dementia as a beatable opponent.

She takes medication to combat the degenerative effects of dementia and, in addition to coaching, keeps her mind active by solving puzzles on her iPad.

"You've got a have self-discipline," Summitt said. "With this dementia situation, I know what I have to do and I'm going to do it every day."

Summitt isn't doing it by herself. She's got a lot of people behind her, including her son Tyler.

"Through thick and thin, we take care of each other," he said. "We protect each other."

But Tyler said he's also thankful for the support his mom has received from her staff and friends.

"We're really blessed to have everybody in our circle," he said.

Warlick, who has worked with Summitt for 25 years, admitted that she has seen the coach slow down and that, she said, is hard to watch.

"But Pat handles it," she said. "I look at her and go, 'Wow, I don't know how she does it. So I think it's harder on us than it is on her."

The coach, meanwhile, hasn't lost her sense of humor.

"She told our kids two things," Warlick said. "She says, 'I'm going to remember your name. And I'm still going to yell at you."

Watch the full story on "20/20"

Learn more about Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

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