Season Ends For Legendary Coach Pat Summitt

Pat Summitt, head coach of the Tennessee Lady Volunteers and the winningest coach in NCAA basketball history, was diagnosed with early onset dementia in 2011. As her 38th season concludes, Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins talks about suspicions that Summit won't return next year.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Last night, legendary coach Pat Summitt, of the Tennessee Lady Volunteers, watched from the bench as her team lost in the women's basketball tournament. A loss to top-ranked Baylor is no embarrassment. And in most years, falling just short of the Final Four would be a disappointment but a good season, nevertheless. But this season, the Lady Vols hoped to take their great coach to the finals one more time. Last May, Pat Summitt was diagnosed with symptoms of early onset Alzheimer's. While she continued to coach, her assistants assumed more and more responsibility, and there's speculation that last night's game may have been her last.

Basketball fans, give us a call. Tell us about the legacy of Pat Summit. The Associated Press reported last night after the game that Pat Summitt has yet to say whether she'll return for a 39th season. She announced in August she'd been diagnosed with early onset dementia of the Alzheimer's type. This team is about Pat Summit. This team battled all year, said Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick as she fought back tears.

I'm proud of them. I thought our team and coaching staff, obviously, was in a different situation - difficult situation - but I thought this team was responsive. I wouldn't trade anything that we did this year.

Baylor held Tennessee to just 30.3 percent shooting from the floor. Much of that was because of the inside presence of the 6-foot-8 Griner, who was just one block shy of her fifth career triple-double. Defense wins ballgames for you, according to Baylor coach Kim Mulkey. I guess I learned from two of the best. I learned from Pat Summitt and from former Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore, you better guard people, and these kids are going to guard you.

Again, if you have thoughts about the career of Pat Summitt, the legendary coach at the Lady Vols at Tennessee, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. The announcement that she was suffering from early onset Alzheimer's came in a meeting with two reporters. Among them, Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post. And in a profile that she wrote afterwards, she described Pat Summitt first in a state of denial after she went for tests that confirmed the source of strange memory problems she was having; that she would lose her keys three times a day instead of once a day. And the steely resolve that Pat Summitt always brought to everything she did; the enormous energy she brought to everything she did; the sense of being lit from within to accomplish, to achieve - well, all of that forced her to eventually come to accept that her disease was something she could not defeat by willpower alone.

She decided that she would like to coach, if she could, another three seasons, but understood that her role on the team would have to be diminished. She assigned greater responsibilities to her assistant coaches, who coached the team in the games while she focused on individual coaching - 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Pat's on the line with us from Ovid in New York.

PAT: Hi. I was the pep band director for eight years, for Pat Head Summitt's Lady Vols. And I just want to say that she is one of the classiest, most brilliant coaches I've ever had the opportunity to play for. She appreciated us even though we were only the pep band. She took us with them on every away game that she could possibly do it, and I am honored to have known Pat Head Summitt.

CONAN: Can you remember the story of a time when she had some interaction with you or the pep band?

PAT: Many, many times. She would be coaching the game - and you know how intensely she coached the game; she was in it 100 percent. The game would be over, and we'd be getting ready packing up- getting ready to go on the bus, to go back to the hotel. And she would come to us and say, thank you very much for your support. And she said to me personally that we had a lot to do with their success.

CONAN: That's - as you suggest, not every coach would go out of their way to thank the pep band.

PAT: That's right. That's right.

CONAN: Pat, thanks very much.

PAT: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Phoebe. And Phoebe is with us from Alcoa in Tennessee.

PHOEBE: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

PHOEBE: Hi. Yeah, I just have a - I tried out for Pat Head's team, my - her second year there. And I'm pretty short and didn't make the team. But just - what she taught me was never give up, 100 percent balls to the wall, all the time. I'll never forget that. She's got a very intimidating presence but my God, you learned from her, you know? She's just the best.

CONAN: Intimidating presence - people have described her basilisk stare.

PHOEBE: Oh, my God. It's like Godzilla eyes, you know - it burns the ground between you and her.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PHOEBE: It's like oh, OK, whatever. But she's just fabulous. She lives up the river from my mom and just, you know, she could have been president of the United States, or anything she wants. She's just wonderful.

CONAN: Was it difficult for you to watch the Lady Vols games this season?

PHOEBE: Yes, I wanted them to win, you know, for Pat, but they did - like Holly said last night, they gave 100 percent, you know. And last night, you could tell it wasn't about Brittney Griner. It was the gals, you know. They just never gave up, and it's heartbreaking to watch. You know, we all wear the We Back Pat T-shirts, you know, to the games and just - oh, God, not having her there, there's going to be such a big hole, you know? But...

CONAN: It is - it's going to be impossible to replace. Phoebe, thanks very much for the call.

PHOEBE: Oh, yeah. Thank you for having this.

CONAN: So long. Now, let's see if we go next to - this is Trina. Trina with us from Memphis.

TRINA: Hi. I grew up watching Pat Summitt's teams. And as a girl, it always has - has made me know that there's more than I can achieve and that I can't ever let my - the fact that I'm a girl be an excuse because she never lets anybody get away with any excuses no matter what. And my heart is broken for her and for her son - for Tyler.

CONAN: A student at Tennessee.

TRINA: Yes, a senior.

CONAN: Trina, thanks very much for the call.

TRINA: Thank you.

CONAN: I mentioned that Pat Summitt described her condition publicly for the first time with Sally Jenkins and another reporter. Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist with the Washington Post, the co-author of Pat Summitt's autobiography. She joins us now on the phone from New York City. Nice to have you with us today.

SALLY JENKINS: Hi there.

CONAN: You also described in the piece you wrote about her that - you described her as your best friend. What was it like to watch your friend this season?

JENKINS: Well, you know, I found it pretty heroic. You know, most people with this sort of diagnosis are tempted to just go away. There's a lot of stigma attached to the diagnosis. Pat chose to treat it as an illness but not a mortal illness, not a career-ending illness. She's chosen to work with it for as long as she can and hopefully, you know, she'd like to do for Alzheimer's what - you know, for lack of a better comparison, what Lance Armstrong did for cancer. You know, it's not a death sentence, and she's going to fight it. There's no cure for Alzheimer's, but the key word that people leave off of that sentence is yet. So Pat's going to work for a cure and continue to, you know, try to teach and motivate for as long as she can.

CONAN: As long as she can. After last night, have you spoken with her?

JENKINS: Oh, sure. Yeah. You know, she hasn't made any decisions. I mean, I don't think - I think that she's been - anyone who knows Pat knows how highly focused she is on the tournament in March and, you know, she was trying to get a team to the Final Four. And it just wasn't the time for her to sit back and appraise her personal health situation or, you know, what she wants to do. She has said consistently she wants to work for as long as she is able. And now that the tournament is over for her and her team, I think, now she'll sit down and take stock and say, well, how did it go this year? How did I do? And how did the team do? you know.

I mean, the fact is, they won 27 games, won the Southeastern Conference Tournament, and reached the final eight of the NCAA Tournament - which for most coaches is a career year. You know, it went pretty well. But she's got to sit down and appraise, you know, how it affected her personally and her health, you know; how much of a positive impact she had on the team, and how much did her diagnosis potentially take away from the team, you know. Those are all things that she can't possibly appraise until the season, you know, has ended, and it just ended last night. So she's going to need some time, I think, to look at everything.

CONAN: Sally Jenkins, sports columnist for the Washington Post and co-author of Pat Summitt's autobiography. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And in your piece, you described an emotional meeting when Pat Summitt first described her condition to the authorities there at the University of Tennessee.

JENKINS: Yes. She went to the chancellor of the university, Dr. James Cheek - who I think is a friend of hers as well as, you know, a boss - and also to the athletic director, Joan Cronan, and basically disclosed her diagnosis. And they - essentially - started crying and said look, you know, you are our coach now, and you will always be our coach for as long as you want to be.

CONAN: And again, we're not going to be able to tell how long she wants to be.

JENKINS: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: You also describe her indomitable will. We were talking with one of her former players - somebody who tried out for the team, didn't make it; but that basilisk stare, the total concentration that she put on a team and on a game.

JENKINS: Well, yeah, and then that's - the total concentration is still there and, you know, she had it these last three weeks. You know, her team won seven of their last eight ball games and really grew up a lot over the last month. You know, I think anybody who thinks that Pat was devastated by the loss to Baylor last night doesn't know her very well. She was disappointed, but she understands that they met a better team. I think she really admires Baylor and Brittney Griner and their coach, Kim Mulkey. I think she thought that, you know, the best team won.

She thought her team got a lot better in the last month of the season. But her attitude, you know, this morning has been, you know, it is what it is, and let's move on and learn from it, you know? She's not sitting around and crying this morning, I can promise you, or feeling sorry for herself. She feels pretty good about the way things went.

CONAN: Sally Jenkins, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

JENKINS: Sure.

CONAN: Sally Jenkins, sports columnist for the Washington Post. And let's get another caller on the line. This is Robbie, Robbie with us from Jackson, Wyoming.

ROBBIE: Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

ROBBIE: I have never been a basketball fan and through a basketball pool at work, you know, started watching the men's - and stumbled on to a women's game. And we were fascinated, and it was Pat that was the first coach we watched.

CONAN: What about her so attracted you?

JENKINS: I think it was just the respect that the girls had for her; and in listening to her, the respect she had for them.

CONAN: So many of her players have talked about how she changed their lives. Every time you talk about a coach with her level of accomplishment, you always hear, it's not just about the numbers, the victories or even the championships. It's about so much else.

ROBBIE: Oh, absolutely. And I think the commenter you just had on who commented that - I certainly don't know Pat Summitt. I'm sure she was disappointed last night, but sees that you just move on.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

ROBBIE: And I think that's what she has contributed.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Robbie. Appreciate it. One last caller. Let's see if we go to Michael. Michael with us from Princeton, North Carolina.

MICHAEL: Yes. I grew up in East Tennessee; born and raised in Knoxville. And when you're a kid growing in East Tennessee, there's two things that are absolutely important to you. And that is Tennessee football and Lady Vols basketball. And when I was in high school, she came and spoke at our church. My pastor was her cousin, and she came and spoke to our church, and it was just a wonderful experience. We absolutely - the church was packed. There was - we had to get - bring seats in. Everybody in the whole town came that day to - 500 people came to see her because she is - everybody loves Pat Summitt.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much. We appreciate it. The legacy of Pat Summitt. This email from Greg in Oakland. I'm a 59-year-old guy who admires Pat Summitt more than any other coach in history, except John Wooden. In my opinion, Pat is the greatest coach in history. Boys get a chance to coach the girls, but the girls never get a chance to coach the boys - and a good thing, or Pat would have taken them to the cleaners. And it's a shame her greatness is, was limited because of her gender. She is the best. Again, the Lady Vols eliminated last night by Brittney Griner and Baylor, in the women's NCAA collegiate basketball tournament, which will continue tonight.

Tomorrow, we'll talk about sleep, and the risks and benefits of prescription drugs that help you catch some Z's. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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