UK Women's Basketball

Summitt's Alzheimer's diagnosis presents unique challenge for assistant DeMoss

Tennessee assistant coach Mickie DeMoss yelled instructions as her team played Georgia last week.
Tennessee assistant coach Mickie DeMoss yelled instructions as her team played Georgia last week. ASSOCIATED PRESS

There is a lot of uncertainty around Tennessee these days.

The coaches and players would be lying if they said otherwise.

"We are in uncharted waters here," assistant coach Mickie DeMoss said on Tuesday night, two nights before the sixth-ranked Lady Vols face No. 9 Kentucky in Memorial Coliseum.

There is no tattered parchment map to point out how one works with a head coach battling the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, as Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt is.

There is no Google map to chart exactly how a team wins a ninth national championship while relying heavily on its assistant coaches to do much of the day-to-day work.

"I don't know that in the history of sports a head coach has ever gone public with early stages of dementia," DeMoss said. "We are really learning as we're going."

But DeMoss, who was the head coach at Kentucky from 2003 until she stepped down in 2007, has charted some of these rough waters before.

She watched her own mother battle this same disease that now threatens to slowly chip away at one of college basketball's greatest minds.

"I think about it all the time," DeMoss said. "I think about her as my friend, much more than as a coach. I went through this with my mom. ... It certainly has prepared me to deal with it with a lot more patience and compassion."

DeMoss doesn't believe in coincidences.

She believes everything happens for a reason.

So that day when Summitt called her to come back to Tennessee and be an assistant coach there again (she was there for 20-plus years before leaving for the UK job), it was meant to be.

"I knew Pat needed me," DeMoss said.

Then she paused.

"I knew there was a need for me to come back here," said DeMoss, who was then an assistant at Texas. "I couldn't quite put my finger on it at the time, but I knew I needed to come back."

Public battle

There were signs of Summitt's failing memory last season, DeMoss said.

Her assistants kept attributing her memory lapses to a bad mix of medication for the coach's silent struggle with rheumatoid arthritis.

But Summitt started to worry that it was something more. She received her early- onset dementia diagnosis last summer while being tested at the Mayo Clinic.

The 59-year-old coach told the world about her diagnosis in late August. She wanted to be open and honest. She wasn't scared to become the face of the disease.

"I feel better just knowing what I'm dealing with," Summitt told the Knoxville News Sentinel at the time. "And as far as I'm concerned it's not going to keep me from living my life, not going to keep me from coaching."

Since then, DeMoss and her fellow assistant coaches Holly Warlick and Dean Lockwood have gone about the business of keeping Tennessee a national power.

Tennessee's assistants — with nearly 90 years of coaching experience among them — have divvied up much of the day-to-day coaching responsibility.

"We did not want our players to be confused," DeMoss said. "We did not want me calling out an offense and Holly calling out a different one. Or Dean calls a defense and I'm calling out a press."

So they split things up like a football staff, DeMoss explained, with Lockwood and Warlick taking over the defensive side of the ball and Summitt and DeMoss responsible for offensive play calling.

Summitt, who is exercising her mind and body religiously to fight off the dementia, isn't as hands-on at practices and in games as she used to be.

But the coach is still effective at getting her point across, in ways that only Summitt can.

"She can come in and pick and choose what she wants to tweak," DeMoss said. "When she gets on the kids now, it speaks volumes because she doesn't rant and rave for 40 minutes like she used to. ... When she really wants to make a point with someone now, it has more meaning."

Like everyone battling this disease, Summitt has good days and bad days, her friend said.

When the head coach has traveled and gotten in late or done long fund-raising or booster events the day before, she might not be "quite as sharp," DeMoss said, before adding.

"But again, she's handling this as well as anyone in her position could ever imagine."

'Not a pity party for Pat'

Summitt is a strong and sturdy tree trunk with branches reaching far and wide across the country.

Her fingerprints will be on women's basketball via her former players and assistant coaches long after she has left the game.

Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell is one of those coaches as are UK assistants and former Tennessee players Kyra Elzy and Shalon Pillow.

Mitchell, a former Vols graduate assistant, admitted that things will be different when Summitt comes to Memorial Coliseum for a battle of top 10 teams on Thursday night.

"I don't know how this is going to go," Mitchell said when asked about taking on Summitt. "I really don't."

"I think about her often and we try to stay in touch and try not to hound her because I know a lot of people are after her," he said.

Mitchell said UK will try to do what Summitt has asked and not make this season about her disease.

"She wants it to be about the players on the floor," he said. "So we're going to try to honor that and try to get prepared and beat them."

Tennessee and UK are in a battle for supremacy in the Southeastern Conference, so in some ways Summitt's condition will fade into the shadows, which is how the head coach wants it, DeMoss said.

"Pat wouldn't want anybody to not want to kick her butt like they always have," DeMoss said. "She'd be insulted. She doesn't want anybody's sympathy. She has said it's not a 'pity party for Pat.'"

SEC standings

Conf. All

Kentucky 3-0 14-2

South Carolina 3-0 14-2

Tennessee 3-0 12-3

Louisiana St. 3-0 12-3

Georgia 2-1 13-3

Vanderbilt 1-1 13-2

Florida 1-2 11-5

Auburn 1-2 9-7

Mississippi St. 0-2 10-5

Arkansas 0-3 11-4

Mississippi 0-3 10-6

Alabama 0-3 10-7

Thursday's games

Tennessee at Kentucky, 7 p.m.

Florida at Georgia, 7 p.m.

South Carolina at LSU, 8 p.m.

Arkansas at Mississippi, 8 p.m.

Auburn at Vanderbilt, 9 p.m.

Mississippi St. at Alabama, 9 p.m.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader