Pat Summitt's lead-melting stare can be seen and feared from the loftiest nosebleed seats of Knoxville's Thompson-Boling Arena. She's a Hall of Fame coach enshrined before the age of 60. She has coached women's basketball at my alma mater for closer to 40 years than 30, and is the most popular coaching face of a metropolis full of fans, athletes and media types who'd throw themselves in front of a speeding train at her most diffident request.
And she would not care for the attitude she's seeing right now.
Coach Summitt has released a statement on the Lady Vols' official website, regarding her just-publicized diagnosis of early-onset dementia, which concludes as follows:
I've been honest and shared my health concerns with you, and now we'll move forward to the business at hand... coaching a great group of Lady Vols. For the time being, I hope you will respect my privacy regarding this matter.
But for a soundbite that really sounds like Miz Pat, you'll want to turn to the first page of The Washington Post interview she gave this week:
When the first neurologist told her she had symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer's disease, she almost dropped him with one punch. When a second one advised her to retire immediately, she said, "Do you have any idea who you're dealing with?"
That there, that's our girl. And everybody just stop eulogizing her, right this second. She wouldn't stand for it if she knew.
I don't mean to minimize the suffering of millions of Americans, or to dismiss the magnitude of what she's staring down. But a diagnosis of dementia isn't necessarily a death sentence. And if anybody's got this well in hand, it's Pat Summitt.
It'll be hard. So was building a perennially championship-contending team from scratch, driving the team van and doing laundry when she was thrust into the position in the mid-'70s. So is coaching eight national championship teams, three of them consecutive, 16 SEC championship teams, and a gold medal-winning Olympic squad.
Coach Summitt has the full support of her athletic director. She's surrounded by capable assistants. And she's been presented with an opponent that's trying to take away everything she loves, at a cellular level. Forgive the plural tense for a second and let me speak for Rocky Top: Pat Summitt is, for all tangible purposes, the only coach we've ever had, and the only coach we ever want, and mortality be damned. If anybody's got this, it's her. In our hometown parlance, if it can be got, it's fixin' to get got.