Bernstein: Pat Summitt Shouldn’t Continue Coaching

By Dan Bernstein- Senior Columnist

(CBS) There’s no easy way to say what I’m about to say, nor is there any pleasant way to talk about one of the worst diseases there is – one so excruciating and unfair, and so relentless.

University of Tennessee women’s head basketball coach Pat Summitt announced that she has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

She needs to stop coaching, immediately.

I know little about Summitt, only that saying she is most highly accomplished and most highly respected still stops short of describing her achievements. I am unaware of anything that contradicts a word of the praise she has received throughout her career, or in the wake of her shocking disclosure.

It is the nature of athletes and coaches to fight, and Summitt is putting on a brave public face. She insists that she will use medication and mental exercises to slow the progress of her dementia, while assigning more duties to trusted assistants.

But this isn’t a return from heart surgery, nor is it even a battle with cancer. There is no cure, and any “treatment” is only palliative. Once it has begun its grim, destructive march, Alzheimer’s cannot be stopped or slowed.

And this is something other than the stories that often swirl around elderly coaches: “He’s not as sharp as he was a few years ago,” or “That’s the kind of detail he didn’t miss when he was younger.”

This is a diagnosis of a 59-year-old from the Mayo Clinic – not whispers among opponents at a preseason luncheon, or the muttered gossip of tipsy boosters in a stadium-lot hospitality tent. It’s real, and has the definitive stamp of legitimacy.

One of the earliest signs of onset is forgetfulness, particularly the brain’s inability to retain new memories. Nothing is being saved to the hard-drive the same way, if at all.

So for what is she responsible, now, during games? Substitutions are made, plays are designed and called, and timeouts are burned, with the clock marking each decision in tenth-of-a-second increments as coaches make multiple, concurrent calculations, some subconscious. The first time anything goes wrong – or even seems a little…off – a reasonable person will have to weigh the effect of tangled neurons.

And while it’s simple and understandable to look immediately at the intense pressure of in-game situations, a larger issue, even, could arise with the day-to-day responsibilities of the job. Beyond tactics, controlled emotion is what makes great coaches great – knowing exactly when to push which buttons when, instinctively understanding when and where to provide the pat on the back or administer the swift kick in the pants.

Alzheimer’s patients can struggle to control emotions. It begins in subtle fashion (perhaps a more insidious problem, since coaches need subtlety), then inexorably worsens into more serious aggression and irritability. Players will be unable to trust the messages they receive, not knowing if it’s Coach talking, or just the plaque interfering with the connections in her brain.

Most importantly, the college coach makes a promise to the parents of recruits that their son or daughter is now in the best possible hands. Even if Summitt is joined in those living rooms by a team of caring, competent assistants, how can that really be pledged?

It can’t. Nor will it stop rival coaches from making sure her condition gets mentioned, even as they express the deepest, deepest sympathy.

University attorneys must be racing down the hall to the AD’s office as I write this, explaining that a demented head coach creates exposure to all kinds of potential litigation. Now that no less an authority than the Mayo has confirmed the existence of the malady, there can be no cover-ups of any lapses that occur or consequential mistakes that she may make. If she continues with the real responsibilities of a head coach, the school owns the risks.

We are quick to say that those who suffer from any serious disease are heroic, fighting spirited battles to rage against the dying of the light.

(Already, in fact, the buoyant prose is rolling in. USA Today wrote “Summitt determined to face down Alzheimer’s challenge.”)

But again, this is not cancer. The light is going. We don’t see big billboards of proud survivors sporting pink ribbons or rubber bracelets, urging others to do as they did.

Alzheimer’s allows no heroes among victims. Anyone with any unfortunate contact with this horror knows the heroes are the haunted loved ones who never stop visiting, taking precious time with a family member who has no idea who this person is, here today recounting old memories, walking in the garden or sharing a cup of coffee.

The heroes are the selfless professional caregivers, who in their pure humanity have chosen to help patients retain some sense of dignity, even if no family comes to call.

Someone as proud and beloved as Pat Summitt deserves better than a slow, very public descent.

The University of Tennessee should promote her to Head Coach Emeritus, or a similar, executive figurehead position, and she should understand. She could continue to work to the best of her abilities, without the glare of media or the burden of wins and losses on the floor or in recruiting.

Her legacy should remain. The legacy of Pat Summitt, not the legacy of what she will become.

bernstein 90x130 Bernstein: Pat Summitt Shouldnt Continue Coaching
Dan Bernstein has been the co-host of “Boers and Bernstein” since 1999. He joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995. The Boers and Bernstein Show airs every weekday from 1PM to 6PM on The Score, 670AM. Read more of Bernstein’s blogs here. Follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein.
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  • Larry Horse's Arse

    I agree, retire with dignity intact.

    My Mom, at 87, has the onset of dementia also,

  • Murphs Upper-Lip

    It’s time to step down.

  • Cameltoe Rancher

    My wife’s grandfather (91) also is struggling with it. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live through, let alone coach through that.

    At the same time, I am reminded of Bear Bryant’s quick demise after he stepped away. Dan’s points are excellent, particularly those about the responsibility of the school to provide the best leadership that their budget can provide.

    I think that the HC Emeritus might be the best option for all involved.

    God bless all of those who must deal with the feelings of helplessness and frustration of a family member so stricken. Yeah, sky point and all!

  • Sox Fan in Minny

    It sucks, but I 100 percent agree. My grandma suffered from this and it was beyond devastating. I do not see how you could coach a high profile team even in the early stages. Horrible disease

  • Satan

    The fact that Summitt’s announcement comes as a surprise speaks to the fact that, as Bernstein said himself, dementia is a “slow descent”. That’s why I don’t think it’s that big a deal that she’s coaching this season. If 2-3 years down the road, she still has her same current role, then I’d be surprised and maybe a little concerned, but Bernstein’s going a bit overboard by proclaiming this to be a risky situation for Pat and Tennessee.

    If she hadn’t said anything, would anyone have even suspected that she had this disease? This will probably be her last season (sort of a “statement” season if you will), and hopefully it’ll provide hopeful inspiration for the millions of families affected by Alzheimer’s. And I guarantee her dignity won’t come even close to being publicly compromised at any point during the year.

    • Murphs Upper-Lip

      Saw my grandpa deteriorate with this awful illness for years. I will say that if her intentions are to coach for one final goodbye, she really should be fine. It’s still very early and after the time she’s put into her profession she deserves to at least sorta go out on her own terms. Beyond one more year, though, would be a poor decision.

      • Bronzo

        I agreee MUL… if this is as she says the early onset of this horrible disease coaching 1 more year shouldn’t be a problem Most people don’t fall off the cliff with this. it is by most accounts a slow process.. And yes she deserves to leave on her own terms. I doubt she would do anything to hurt her legacy or the UT womans B-ball program.

      • Larry Horse's Arse

        I hope she’d be ok with live tv during the year…mistakes etc.
        E.G. My Mother was off by one day on my birthday this year, the past two days she wanted to ask me about the earthquake in D.C. but asked me about the “hurricane.” It’s sad.

        I like the HC Emeritus idea…sort of like how John Wooden was treated by UCLA.

  • Murphs Upper-Lip

    This site is worse than usual today!!#@! Almost impossible to leave posts! F U C B S ! ! !

  • Henry Baron

    Great article, it is the sad reality of life.

  • Murph's Soap Without A Rope

    Great Article Dan.

    No one knows what the onset will be. No one has said how “early” the onset is. Having seen friends and loved ones suffer horribly with it, I would not feel comfortable with my child being in her care. Mood swings, depression and acts of agression are just some of the behaviors that I witnessed. UT has a responsibility to Summitt and the players to do the right thing. She must be moved upstairs. It will not be popular and the school will get skewered because of it, but it is the right thing to do.

    • Murphs Upper-Lip

      “No one has said how “early” the onset is.” You’re right, I was thinking that. If it’s early I could see her coach for one more year. But, I totally understand your and LHA’s point. Not coaching at all would be the “safe” decision.

  • Charlie Cormier

    I watched Willy Mays play for too long. Granted, it was not dementia.but it was sad. I would hate to see Pat Summitt try to coach too long. The pace of the downward spiral of dementia varies from person to person. It could be a plateau on Monday and “drop off a cliff” on Tuesday. That is how it happened to my 70 year old wife, – now in a Nursing Home.

    • Murphs Upper-Lip

      What a horrible analogy.

  • mrBIG

    Now its Dr. Bernstein. Every time you open your mouth you make the world a little dumber.

    • Meatless Meatball

      Whose Dr. Bernstein?

  • Meatless Meatball

    Honestly, there’s a much better reason than the reasons you give, Dan: she should give up the head coach position because it’s less important than spending what time she has left to keep her wits about her with friends and loved ones.

    Alzheimer’s is a nasty disease. I saw my grandma’s best friend whither away to the point that she couldn’t even recognize her sister, with whom she’d lived for the final two decades of her life, as her sister, rather thinking she was a girl who’d grown up down the street from her. Still, in her rare moments of lucidity, the same kindness that had once been so common to her personality shone through, and her family and friends were immeasurably grateful for that.

    Pat Summitt isn’t hard-up for money, and she’s not (or, at least, doesn’t appear to be) an utter egomaniac the way many coaches (men and women) are. I would bet that she won’t stick around much beyond this year anyways, but really, leaving to spend time with family and friends is, in this case, a legitimate reason to walk away. In fact, it should be the primary one: life is not a job or a sport.

  • Dean

    Didn’t read the article. Didn’t need to.

    Bernstein, who has made it clear he hates women’s sports, has no business telling Pat Summitt what she should do with her life. Only her and her doctors know what she can handle this year. If they believe she is capable of coaching this year it’s their call.

    Bernstein, why do you even care?

  • hammer

    Open to litigation, is reason for immediate resignation? Good grief what a ridicules society we live in. It’s to early to say she needs to leave now, protecting herself from herself, is not Bernsteins responsibility.

  • PackerBacker

    Last I checked, you aren’t a doctor and more importantly aren’t her doctor. You have no insight into the details of this situation and therefore should not be making proclamations as to what is best for her and her future. How about Joe Paterno? He’s a liability to himself and the people around him every time he is near the sideline. Where’s your article suggesting he needs to wrap it up? Why don’t you stick to actual sports stories and leave the medical advice to the experts.

  • Harry's Phlegm

    I don’t like or follow women’s sports but I like Pat Summit. I always like a straight shooter and if testimony from former players means anything, and we know it does, she is a woman that is easy to love.

    Let her go out on her own terms. I agree with Bernstein and I disagree with Bernstein…know what I mean?

    Shout out to all the guys who post on this blog (LHA, MUL, Meatless, Spaulding, etc.). I thought Bernstein was done posting and I just got back. My bad.

    • Larry Horse's Arse

      Back at ya HP, glad to see you posting here again (love your handle, and suit).

  • Tim in PA

    I think people are confusing “early onset” with early stages of disease. Early onset means you are having disease, of any kind, before the typical expected age. Basically if you are younger than 65 and show signs of dementia, guess what, you have early onset…… You have heart disease at 38, early onset. Now how severe that dementia is, is a completely different discussion. You could be 55 have early onset and still be bat$h!t crazy. Having said all, clinically, they are starting to diagnosis Alzheimer’s earlier and break it into more classifications. The bottom line is we have a diagnosis, we have no idea how severe. We do not know the impact it has on her daily activities. I think she has earned the right to give it a go and work w/ closely TN

  • Sports Girl

    There’s an important element in this that those of you who are dissing Dan may not realize. “Early onset” Alzheimer’s is in fact different from the Alzheimer’s that affects the elderly. It is much more agressive and debilitating. My aunt suffered from it at 45 and lost the ability to talk in a summer. Her two sons were also stricken and quickly deteriorated.

    It still affects everyone differently but “early onset” robs you of your faculties much more quickly. Pat Summit will need to be watched very closely to monitor the progress of the disease.

  • mike in davenport

    She should step down. Not just for the University’s sake, or her legacy’s sake, but how about just to spend her remaining healthy time with her friggin’ family? It’s sports; and amateur sports, at that – it’s not that important!

  • brian

    The auto refresh feauture on this site ensures that someone like Pat Summitt will always stay on.

  • Go Vols!

    Wait a minute. This article could be the most short-sighted piece of writing that I’ve read in a long time. Pat Summit is a woman who knows her limits. It’s my understanding that this is a slowly progressing disease. Who is to say that she doesn’t have several more years to give to this sport? We are not her and we are not her doctors. In fact, the only thing that we do know is that it’s easier to call shots from the sidelines than anywhere else. She and the AD know their sports program. I say it’s best to let them call the shots.

  • Tennessee Bob

    The coaching staff at Tennessee is structured in such a manner that Pat has the luxury of remaining head coach until bedridden without endangering the program. Pat’s legacy is hers and she has earned the right to manage this stage of her career. She will do the right thing and the best thing for the program.

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  • Tim in PA

    Based on this logic I suppose Dan would have Terry step down now too :-) Hey, Hey!

    • Chris in Scottsdale

      Classic. Well played.

  • A

    Oh Danimal… you know what is sad? You are smart enough to realize that you know nothing about her current state, mental capacity, or degradation rate. Do you think that it’s possible that she was keen enough to notice the potential for this disease (knowing it runs in the family) earlier than most people would? All we know right now is that she essentially is a “carrier” of the disease and as she gets older it will worsen. She could be many years away from anyone else in the world recognizing a difference in her abilities as a person or coach.

    Do you not think there have been coversations about making sure she is closely monitored by friends, family, and the university? I guarantee she will step down long before she could be considered a liability as a coach. It could be next season or it could be a decade from now.

    Back to what is sad….you know that. You know your argument is black/white when disease states have many shades of grey.

    I hate that you make arguments all day, everyday…not because you believe them, but because they illicit controversy and get you attention. Part of me thinks you have done it for so long, that you don’t know what you really believe in.

  • Anthony

    I 100% agree Dan

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