No one can be fully prepared for the battle facing Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt, who has been diagnosed with early onset dementia. But it's hard to imagine anyone being better prepared for it than the 59-year-old Hall of Famer. It's not just the cultural challenges and physical obstacles Summitt has overcome -- including, in recent years, rheumatoid arthritis -- on her way to tallying the most wins (1,071) in men's or women's Division I basketball that can give her strength in the seasons ahead. It's also the widespread support group -- an enormous circle of friends and allies all over the country -- she has created throughout her career.
There's a saying around Thompson-Boling Arena, where the Lady Vols have often drawn capacity crowds of over 21,000 fans: Once a Lady Vol, always a Lady Vol. It's true of the players, who regularly return for transgenerational reunions -- a few years back the 1974 team even offered to serve as practice fodder for the 2008 NCAA Championship team, which included Player of the Year Candace Parker -- and it's true of the staff, many of whom have happily served Summitt for decades. There's Holly Warlick, a former player who has been a Summitt assistant for the last 26 years; there's Debby Jennings, the Lady Vols' Sports Information Director for 35 years; there's Jenny Moshak, the Lady Vols' trainer for more than 20 years, who still works on former players -- and their families -- long after they graduate from the school. After the Lady Vols won their eighth and most recent NCAA title in 2008, Katie Wynn, who had been Summitt's secretary for 27 years at the time, talked about why people never leave the program. "It really is a like a family here," said Wynn, whose many tasks include maintaining a current database of contact info on the scores of players who have passed through the program. "We're like mom and dad here. If a former player needs something, we'll try to take care of it."
"We take care of each other and that's huge," added Warlick. "Loyalty is so huge to our program. If you can keep assistants around for as long as I've been here, you're doing something right."
Loyalty to Summitt and her program goes well beyond the borders of Knoxville and even the state of Tennessee. It even goes beyond the hordes of orange-clad fans that follow the team wherever it plays. Every offseason, Summitt has expanded her circle by reaching out to coaches she admires -- men's, women's, NBA, NAIA, it doesn't matter -- to try to master this defense of that offensive set. No doubt she has learned more than Xs and Os from many of them. Her coaching friends have included people who have faced very public health battles, including the late Kay Yow, the former North Carolina State basketball coach whose long and courageous battle with breast cancer ended in 2009 and former Northern State University coach Don Meyer, whose horrific 2008 car wreck resulted in the amputation of much of his left leg and the discovery that he had terminal cancer.
Summitt may never want or need to draw on the enormous deposit of support she has built over the years. But it will be there for her if she does. In the meantime, it's a good bet she'll abide by one of Yow's favorite sayings: "Don't drown in self-pity. Swish your feet a little, then get out."