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Summitt, 59, will continue to coach, and that’s the part of Tuesday’s shocking news that makes it seem as if she is staring down her disease with the same icy glare she made famous while winning eight national championships, 1,071 games and the respect of a nation that didn’t pay much attention to women’s sports in the days when she was growing up.

Summitt, entering her 39th season as coach at the University of Tennessee, got the diagnosis in May and told the world about it Tuesday afternoon. Reaction was shock giving way to dismay, tempered by admiration for her fighting spirit.

“It’s like finding out a close family member is ill,” said transportation safety consultant Kevin Galbreath, a UT alumnus and fervent fan.

“Pat Summitt is our John Wooden,” Baylor women’s coach Kim Mulkey said. “No matter how many national championships (other coaches) win, there will never be another Pat.”

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Summitt wrote an open letter to the university community Tuesday. “I plan to continue to be your coach,” she wrote. “Obviously, I realize I may have some limitations with this condition since there will be some good days and some bad days. For that reason, I will be relying on my outstanding coaching staff like never before.”

The Pat Summitt file

Born: Patricia Sue Head, June 14, 1952, in Clarksville, Tenn.

Family: Married R.B. Summitt in 1980; divorced in 2007. They have one child, son Tyler, born in 1990. He’s a student at Tennessee.

College: Tennessee-Martin, Class of 1974. An All-America player at UT-Martin, she was on the USA’s silver medal team at the 1976 Olympics. In 1984, she coached the USA to a gold medal, becoming the first in U.S. Olympic basketball history to play on and coach medal-winning teams.

Coaching record: 37 seasons, all at Tennessee, 1,071-199 (.843). The wins are the most for a basketball coach at any four-year college or university, men’s or women’s.

NCAA championships Eight (1987, ’89, ’91, ’96, ’97, ’98, 2007, ’08), most among NCAA Division I women’s coaches and second only to the late John Wooden’s 12 with the UCLA men among all NCAA coaches. Summitt also has 18 Final Four appearances, most among all Division I coaches (men or women).

Of note: Member of Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Courts at Tennessee-Martin (Pat Head Summitt Court) and Tennessee (The Summitt) named in her honor. There also are streets named after her on those campuses.

Sources: USA TODAY research, University of Tennessee

Compiled by Craig Bennett

Alzheimer’s is not yet curable. That is perhaps the only known quantity in all this. What lies ahead is mostly about the unknown — how her condition might progress, how stress might affect it, how her players might react to all the attention focused on the health of their coach.

“Life is an unknown and none of us have a crystal ball,” UT athletics director Joan Cronan said in a statement. “But I do have a record of knowing what Pat Summitt stands for: excellence, strength, honesty and courage.”

Beth Kallmyer, senior director of constituent services for the Chicago-based Alzheimer’s Association, talked about stress and Alzheimer’s generally, not specifically about Summitt’s case.

“Like any illness, stress and high stress positions can certainly affect it,” Kallmyer said. “If somebody’s got an illness, stress can exacerbate that.”

Alzheimer’s experts praise Summitt’s disclosure

Alzheimer’s disease experts Tuesday hailed Pat Summitt for her decisions to go public with her diagnosis of early onset dementia, the Alzheimer’s type — and to go forth with her coaching career.

“She deserves tremendous credit for announcing her illness,” says John Morris, a physician and director of the Alzheimer’s disease research center at Washington University in St. Louis who is not involved in her treatment. “This under scores the point that people who are not older can also get dementia. It is key for others to know by recognizing and diagnosing early she, and others, can still function at a very high level for some time to come.”

Summitt, 59, has led the Tennessee women’s basketball program to eight national championships. After experiencing several months of erratic behavior, Summitt went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., several months ago where she was tested and told she had the early Alzheimer’s type dementia.

Morris says early onset dementia is a “rare inherited genetic disease” and strikes people younger than 65. Among the 4 to 5 million people in the USA who have a form of dementia, only about 5% have the early onset form, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Summitt told The Knoxville News Sentinel her grandmother had severe dementia.

Morris is conducting research at Washington University on young people affected by the rare form. While symptoms can appear as early as the 20s, the average of people in their research is 45.

“In the earliest changes, the impairment can be quite subtle,’’ says Morris. “She may still be able to have the cognitive capacity to understand basketball strategy and adjust to differences in the game. She may need to rely more on her associates to assist her in that but it doesn’t mean she’s suddenly incapacitated.”

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, but several pharmaceutical therapies help control symptoms. Early symptoms include forgetfulness, personality changes and poor judgment.

“It’s a fatal disease,” Morris says, “From the time of diagnosis to death averages seven to nine years. She’s younger, so it may not progress at that rate. She might tolerate it much longer than if she’d been older.”

She has other assets working in her favor, according to Deborah Barnes, a dementia expert at the University of California at San Francisco.

“She’s obviously had an active lifestyle and takes good care of herself,” says Barnes. “It’s important to have a good diet and stay as active as possible. That will pay off for her.”

By Janice Lloyd, USA TODAY

Kallmyer said it is important to monitor stress by working with doctors and eating and sleeping right: “It’s important to have that support team. Who’s going to help and let them know when they need to slow down?”

Summitt told Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins— who wrote a biography of Summitt and considers Summitt her best friend — that she began to worry about her health last season when she drew a blank on an offensive set during a game. (The Lady Vols went 34-3, won the Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament and lost in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament.)

Summitt learned of her diagnosis at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Jenkins wrote that Summitt almost punched the first doctor who told her. When a second advised her to retire immediately, Summitt said, “Do you know who you’re dealing with?”

Geno Auriemma does. The Connecticut coach is Summitt’s chief rival, their feud so bitter that the programs no longer play in the regular season.

“You don’t necessarily associate dementia with people our age, so this announcement really put things in perspective,” Auriemma, 57, said in a statement. “There is no doubt in my mind that Pat will take on this challenge as she has all others during her Hall of Fame career — head on. I wish her all the best.”

Well wishes came in from all over the country. John Thompson, the former men’s coach at Georgetown, was talking about the Virginia earthquake that shook Washington, D.C., on his radio show Tuesday afternoon when he switched gears to talk about the shock of Summitt’s news.

“She’s simply one of the best,” Thompson said, adding that he always believed she could have succeeded coaching men’s teams, too.

Oddly, Dean Smith, the former North Carolina men’s coach who was the winningest coach in college basketball history at the time of his retirement in 1997, suffers from a “progressive neurocognitive disorder” affecting his memory.

Leaning on assistants

Kallmyer said the image many of us have of Alzheimer’s patients in wheelchairs often doesn’t square with reality because better diagnostics means more patients are learning of the condition in its early stages.

“One of the things that’s so important in getting an early diagnosis is they can make a plan,” Kallmyer said. “They can live their life and make plans for the future. … Knowing somebody has Alzheimer’s is devastating. It’s fatal. It’s progressive.

“What we recommend is for people to get support they need to deal with that kind of news and focus on living life the best they can and making plans for the future and participating in that.”

Summitt’s plan includes giving more responsibility to her assistants. “We have always collaborated on every facet of Lady Vol basketball, and now you will see Holly Warlick, Dean Lockwood and Mickie DeMoss taking on more responsibility as their duties will change significantly,” Summitt wrote in her open letter.

Baylor’s Mulkey said UT’s assistants “are really head coaches, in my opinion. They are highly skilled, they know what Pat wants and they are trained to take over. But whether Pat Summitt has dementia or any other ailment, she has earned the right to stay on that sideline for as long as she wants. Not only the university, but the entire state of Tennessee, is going to take care of Pat.

“I don’t think the women’s landscape is going to change because of this, beyond people who may try to say negative things about how she isn’t able to do things she used to do. Are you kidding me? That kind of challenge is Pat Summitt.”

Ryan: “It will not be easy”

Former University of Virginia coach Debbie Ryan was diagnosed with cancer in 2000, was treated through 2002 and continued to coach until she retired after last season.

“I’m glad to hear she is going to continue coaching, but it is also time now for her to take care of herself,” Ryan said. “I know what this will be like and it will not be easy. By the same token, I know Pat well and I know she will attack this like she has attacked everything else in her life. Finding a way to make this a positive thing is how she will approach it.”

Summitt’s former players rallied on hearing the news. “Knowing Pat she will get through this, and we will all stand by her side through this,” said Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings.

“I think it’s important to remember that while Pat is a basketball coach, the architect of one of the most storied programs in the history of our sport, she is also a mother, and she’s a daughter, and she’s a friend,” Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said in a statement. “She’s a person who life is happening to. It takes great, great courage to fight health issues; it takes even greater courage to fight them in front of the world.”

Tyler Summitt, Pat’s son, 20, plays on the men’s team at Tennessee as a walk-on. “It seems like she teaches me something new every day,” he said in a statement, “and she is currently giving me one of the best life lessons of all: to have the courage to be open, honest, and face the truth.”

Summitt’s deeply competitive nature has not always made her popular with other coaches. Beth Bass, CEO of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, seemed to make reference to the differences coaches such as Auriemma have had with Summitt.

“Pat Summitt’s name is synonymous with women’s basketball, and the WBCA family is saddened by the news of her diagnosis,” Bass said in a statement. “I use the term ‘family’ in the most sincere way, because even though the women’s basketball coaching community may seem dysfunctional at times, we are a family and take care of our own.”

The Tennessee family will now take care of the coach best known for taking care of business.

“All too often, as passionate sports fans, we develop a false sense of security that our heroes and icons of sport are invincible when the fact is they are just like all of us, managing the same issues and challenges of life,” said Gary Rose, a Tennessee alum who lives in Tampa. “I hope and pray for her quality of life to remain strong. … The numerous championships and banners are great, yet the standard for excellence she set is what I will treasure most.”