For Melanie Balcomb, Tennessee’s Pat Summitt is more than a rival coach.
Over her 10 years as Vanderbilt women’s basketball coach, Balcomb has attempted to get the best of Summitt. More often than not, the legendary Tennessee coach has come away victorious.
But that rivalry hasn’t kept Balcomb from viewing Summitt as a mentor and a close friend.
So when Tennessee assistant Holly Warlick called on Tuesday morning to let Balcomb know Summitt had been diagnosed with early onset dementia (Alzheimer’s type), the Commmodores coach began to tremble.
“I was actually at the doctor’s office, waiting to go in and just sitting there and I just slumped down and started shaking like it was family,” an emotional Balcomb said. “She is an icon and a role model for so many coaches, men, women’s sports – all across the board – and she is the best I have ever coached against. I look up to her and that part is going to be difficult for everybody.”
Summitt, 59, underwent tests at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. in May after consulting local physicians about “ongoing concerns.” She told her team on Tuesday afternoon and later issued a video statement on Tennessee’s website.
She plans to coach this season, which will be her 38th at Tennessee although she acknowledged she likely will have to delegate more duties than normal.
“Obviously, I realize I may have some limitations with this condition since there will be some good days and some bad days," Summitt said. "For that reason, I will be relying on my outstanding coaching staff like never before. We have always collaborated on every facet of Lady Vol basketball; and now you will see Holly Warlick, Dean Lockwood and Mickie DeMoss taking on more responsibility as their duties will change significantly."
Balcomb spoke at Summitt’s induction into the Tennessee Women’s Hall of Fame in June. She said Summitt was “sharp and did a great job talking.”
“You want to see her keep coaching and I certainly hope Pat can coach as long as she wants to,” Balcomb said. “But you don’t want to see somebody struggle in the public and she is such a public figure. ... We all need to respect her privacy but to what point can you with somebody that’s so public?”
Middle Tennessee State coach Rick Insell, who has known Summitt dating back to his days as high school coach at Shelbyville, said he spent all summer with her. He described Summitt as “professional as always. She was upbeat and positive.”
Balcomb was more concerned about Summitt’s physical condition as she has rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, Summitt visited Vanderbilt’s medical center for tests a couple summers ago.
“I never questioned the mental part at all. I did not see that,” Balcomb said. “This summer, I did not get a chance to sit down and talk with her. I told Holly I missed talking with [Summitt] because she didn’t go out as much and was always with an assistant. Now you look back and go, ‘OK, this is why.’ Because she is an extremely hard worker and has not let up in her summer recruiting at all and this was the lightest I had seen her.”
Summitt is college basketball’s – men’s or women’s – all-time winningest basketball coach with 1,071 victories and eight national championships. She is also known as a strong-willed person and told the Knoxville News Sentinel “there is not going to be a pity party and I’ll make sure of that.”
“She's a classy lady and we'll be praying for her and her family,” Insell said. “She’s just all class. That’s all you can say. She's always helped with anything I've needed, and if she needs me she knows I'll be there.”
The fact that Summitt wants to keep coaching and will “as long as the good Lord is willing,” didn’t shock Balcomb. And she said it won’t surprise her if Summitt uses her high-profile status as an opportunity to raise awareness for the illness.
“I don’t think that has surprised any of us. Tennessee basketball is Pat Summitt. That is such a big part of her life,” Balcomb said. “She definitely has something special inside her. She’ll somehow be a role model at it, is my guess. She’ll stand up and help other people who are going through the same thing.”