Pat Summitt has a plan.
This is not breaking news.
She had a plan when she took over as Tennessee’s Lady Vols’ head coach at age 22.
She had a plan to recover from a serious knee injury and make the U.S. Olympic team at age 24.
She had a plan to win her first of eight NCAA championships in 1987 at age 35, taking a team that was a Final Four underdog to the title.
She had a plan three years later when she was a recruiting trip in Virginia and went into labor with her now 21-year old son Tyler, telling pilots of UT’s school plane to fly home because she wanted to her son to be born in Tennessee.
She had a plan to recruit some of the best players in the history of the women’s game – Candace Parker, Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings – and build a model program that breaks no NCAA rules and graduates every player.
She had a plan to lift a sport by herself, put it in a place where it could no longer be ignored by chauvinistic male athletic directors, skeptical TV executives, and anyone who didn’t believe in Title IX and that little girls shouldn’t have dreams of being college athletes.
So it shouldn’t have been any surprise that when Pat was delivered the stunning news in August that she had early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, she reacted like she has throughout her career path that has made her the winningest college basketball coach, men’s and women’s, in history.
“I’ve got a game plan,” says Pat, 59, starting her 38th season in Knoxville. “I get up every morning, have my coffee, get on my I-Pad and do about 12 puzzles in two hours to keep my mind sharp.
“But it’s not just doing puzzles. It’s going to practice and yelling at all those players when they aren’t doing things the right way. That really it keeps me involved.
“I don’t really feel I have dementia, but I have dementia. I don’t think it’s something that’s slowing me down. I think if anything it’s revving me up.”
Since Pat made the news public of her battle, she discovered what she probably already knew. She’s surrounded by people who care for her deeply, from her current players and staff, to her former players and staff, to opposing coaches and fans.
The response, said Lady Vols’ associate head coach Holly Warlick, who played for Pat from 1977-80 and is starting her 27th season on Pat’s staff, has been overwhelming.
“The first question everybody always asks is, `How is Pat doing?’ ” Warlick said. “I say, `She’s fine. She’s at every basketball practice, she’s heavily recruiting, she’s at everything we do.’ In her announcement to the team (about her condition), she said, `I remember two things. One is your names. And two is I can still yell at you.’ ”
Tell her players about it. Center Vicki Baugh and the rest of the Tennessee Lady Vols were admittedly nervous if their coach would be the same ol’ Pat when she finally was on the floor for her first practice. Would she still have the same eye for detail? Could she still deliver her famous glare that always gets across her discontent without uttering a word?
“The first time in practice we didn’t sprint back on defense and get our hands up, she started yelling,” Baugh says. “We were like, `Whoa! Nothing has changed. Pat is still Pat.’ ”
It’s Baugh, a graduated senior about to obtain her Masters’ degree while battling back from two knee surgeries for torn ACLs, who feels a special kinship with Pat.
“From Pat, I’ve learned how to suck it up,” Baugh says. “People go through different adversity every day. If it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger.
“Yes, I did suffer two ACL injuries, but I still have an opportunity to play every day. I don’t have any excuses, I’m back on the court and I’m playing, I don’t remember being hurt.
“Pat doesn’t feel for herself and she doesn’t want us feeling sorry for her.”
Baugh will never forget the manner in which Pat broke told her team.
“She came to us and it was like we were having a casual conversation,” Baugh says. “Because the way she did it was honorable and classy, we didn’t have time to cry or feel bad. We took it as motivation to work. Pat was like, `We can’t change this. I’m still going to be your coach, work with me and I’ll work with you.’ We have that bond.”
When Pat finished speaking, Baugh was so moved she stood and told Pat, “We’ve got your back, Coach.”
Pat says it was hard for her to fight back the tears at that point.
“It really touched me,” Pat recalls.
Just as Pat has touched others, such as some of the SEC coaches she’s tried to beat year after year.
“I was heartbroken when I heard the news and I still get upset thinking about it,” Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb says of Pat’s fight. “But the way she’s handling it is right for her. She’s teaching life lessons like she has always done.”
Auburn coach Nell Fortner said she’s not surprised at her long-time friend’s head-on approach.
“For the past four or five years, we’ve watched Pat battle rheumatoid arthritis and she won’t succumb to it,” Fortner says. “She has this `refuse to lose’ mentality in all areas of his life. She’s never been one to run and hide from anything.
“When you think of women’s basketball and the SEC and Tennessee, you think she’s going to be there forever. She is the grand-ma-ma. She just is. I’m not sure there’s anybody out there in our generation right now that will ever take her place in the game. She’s just THE one.”
Georgia coach Andy Landers, who has gone head-to-head with his ol’ friend Pat for 32 seasons and has known her for almost 40 years, is ecstatic at her courageous decision to keep coaching.
“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,” Landers says. “If she would have said, `I’m done, because I have this disease’ and she was fine for the next 10 years, she would have regretted that. We would have lost one of the game’s best coaches and she’d be kicking herself in the tail.
“It’s the right decision. She’s going to know and the people around her are going to know if the day ever comes when it’s something she needs to let go.”
Pat doesn’t argue with Landers’ viewpoint, saying that she doesn’t plan to coach for the next 25 years. But she’s not done yet.
Yes, she’s had to make a few daily adjustments, with urging and help from her veteran staff of Warlick, Mickie DeMoss and Dean Lockwood, who have a combined 51 years of experience at Pat’s side.
“The thing that Pat doesn’t do is go in the office as much to answer e-mails and do the little things,” Warlick says. “That’s what the assistant coaches have done.
“It’s a different aspect of working. Instead of preparing all day for a practice or a game, she’s squeezing in things to keep her mind sharp. I think she’s doing more time management.
“But when she’s in practice, she preaches what we believe – rebounding and defense. She has been heavily involved in recruiting and continues to sell the program she has built.”
Pat understands even if she didn’t have early onset dementia, the day would come when she’d had enough of coaching. It’s just not anytime soon, if she can help it.
“I love working with our student-athletes and coaches,” Pat says. “I’m not ready to retire. I may be old as dirt, but I’m still trying to win ball games.
“And I still know all those referees by name. I can’t forget them.”