Legendary Coach Pat Summitt Stares Down Dementia

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

ByABC News
November 1, 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.

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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.