Coaching with dementia: Should Pat Summitt resign?

  • Article by: SUSAN HOGAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 24, 2011 - 10:19 PM

Tennessee Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt

Photo: Joe Imel, Associated Press

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I'm a huge fan of college women's basketball and for years have rooted for any and all teams playing Tennessee.

Why? Because of Pat Summitt, the Lady Vols' brash and seemingly obnoxious coach, who happens to be one of the best in her field.

But these days, I'm rooting for Summitt for reasons that have nothing to do with hoops. The 59-year-old coaching legend announced this week that she's suffering from dementia "related" to Alzheimer's, a progressive brain disease that destroys cognitive abilities.

She's determined to battle the disease with the same ferocious attitude that made her a sports champ. She's rightly being lauded by the Alzheimer's Association for raising awareness about the disease, the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States.

But here's the dilemma: Summitt plans to continue coaching, even after suffering bouts of confusion while leading her team to another winning season last year (34-3).

"Her first clue that something was badly wrong came last season, when she drew a blank on what offensive set to call in the heat of a game," the Washington Post reported.

Should she be coaching? Is her choice a good one for herself, but bad for the team? Is she putting her career above the needs of her players?

No one wants to be a cad and ask these awful questions. But you can be sure that behind the scenes the school, players, fans and even Summitt's supporters are quietly wondering, while also hoping she won't be sidelined soon.

Dementia thrusts its sufferers and their families into agonizing ethical dilemmas. The disease progresses in a way that eventually compromises its sufferers from making good choices for themselves and others. But at what point that happens isn't always obvious.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., hosted a forum in Minneapolis on Wednesday to discuss the illness, which affects an estimated 100,000 Minnesotans. Of the 5.4 million Americans living with the disease, only 200,000 are under age 65.

"Obviously, I realize I may have some limitations with this condition, since there will be some good days and some bad days," Summitt said in a video on the university's website.

The video showed a softer side to the coach, one I'd not seen at Final Four championships, where I'd sat in the stands and cheered wildly for opponents to knock off Tennessee. That wasn't an easy feat, since Summitt's teams rarely lose.

Her career record - 1071 win, 199 losses - is astounding. In 37 seasons at the University of Tennessee, her teams captured eight national titles.

Even though I'm not a fan of Summitt's coaching style, I wouldn't wish this horrible disease on her or anyone. The choices are hard, the days ahead difficult.

"I know that even through this adversity she will be an inspiration to all of us," said Jimmy Cheek, the school's chancelor, said in a written statement.

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Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune editorial writer.

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