- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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Phillip Fulmer needed a few moments to compose himself.
"I'm struggling here," the former University of Tennessee football coach said in a phone interview.
Fulmer was trying to find the right words to describe his friend Pat Summitt, who Tuesday made public her ongoing battle with early-onset dementia, a precursor to Alzheimer's disease. He struggled because his own mother suffers from Alzheimer's, so he knows exactly how the disease can slowly erode a person of their memory and in many ways, their life.
"And it does not discriminate," Fulmer said.
This time it chose UT's Summitt, the winningest basketball coach in college history. And by doing so, it delivered another submission hold to a Tennessee athletic department that has been staggered by debilitating news.
It began with the disastrous, 14-month reign of Lane Kiffin, who replaced Fulmer after the 2008 season and stayed just long enough to create a landfill's worth of football damage.
She's a special, special lady. You're talking about lots and lots of years, lots and lots of success. In many ways, she's the face of this university, of our conference really, of our country in sports. Not many ladies in the sports world have accomplished what she's accomplished.
--Former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer on Pat Summitt
Then came the Bruce Pearl Liarpalooza Tour. Pearl cheated as the Vols' men's basketball coach. Then he lied about his cheating.
Pearl was eventually fired and athletic director Mike Hamilton eventually resigned. Hamilton's legacy at UT includes hiring the one-and-done Kiffin and the rules-allergic Pearl, who Wednesday received a three-year show-cause penalty from the NCAA's committee on infractions.
During the late stages of Hamilton's eight-year watch, NCAA investigators began swarming to Knoxville like green flies to a compost pile.
Through it all, Summitt, 59, has been the one constant, the one dependable, enduring figure in an athletic program beset by high-profile failures. Her program and her reputation, both painstakingly built during the past 37-plus years in Knoxville, is in stark contrast to Hamilton, Kiffin, Pearl and a sometimes rudderless and clueless UT administration.
"She's a special, special lady," said Fulmer, who first met Summitt more than three decades ago. "You're talking about lots and lots of years, lots and lots of success. In many ways, she's the face of this university, of our conference really, of our country in sports. Not many ladies in the sports world have accomplished what she's accomplished."
Fulmer won a national championship in 1998, Tennessee's first (and only) football title since 1951. Summitt has won eight NCAA Division I championships, trailing only the late, great John Wooden (10). More than a few times, Fulmer's football recruits asked if they could meet Summitt during their on-campus visit. Such was her star power.
When Fulmer, after 17 years as the Vols' head coach, was told he was being replaced at the conclusion of the 2008 season, Summitt was there that day to help break his fall. They cried together. And on Tuesday, when Summitt made her medical condition known to the world, Fulmer couldn't call her fast enough.
"I can imagine she has thought through this whole thing very thoroughly," Fulmer said. "She has a plan. I've never known her not to have a plan."
And the plan is to continue coaching until she can't. The plan is to rely on her assistant coaches, her wonderful son Tyler (a UT student), her friends and her family, which happens to stretch from one end of the basketball world to the other, including, yes, even to Storrs, Conn.
Summitt is beloved at Tennessee because she wins, sure, but also because she is genuine. UT is part of her family and her family is part of UT.
The disingenuous Kiffin never understood that. His roots were a quarter-inch deep, if that. When USC called with a coaching offer, he simply swapped school colors.
Pearl understood Tennessee, but then lost his way. And lost his job.
Summitt could have left for other programs, but didn't. Nor did she use those offers as leverage. This is a woman who, despite being in labor and doubled over in pain on the floor of a private plane, refused to allow the pilot to land the aircraft in Virginia. She wanted Tyler born on Tennessee soil.
There were tears and gasps throughout the basketball world when Summitt, sitting comfortably on a couch with her napping labrador, Sadie, announced that doctors at the Mayo Clinic had diagnosed her with early-onset dementia. But those closest to her, such as Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, who also wrote Summitt's autobiography, say that the diagnosis has provided clarity. Now Summitt knows what her real opponent is.
"The thing people need to know is she's doing great," Jenkins said Wednesday afternoon from Knoxville. "She ain't afraid of the struggle. She's built for this in a way. She has an enormous and deep, deep reserve of strength."
Tennessee is bigger than the Kiffins, Pearls and Hamiltons of the world. They were at UT, but they weren't of UT.
Summitt is Tennessee. Compared to the challenges she faces, Wednesday's news from the committee on infractions means little in the long term. Same with the departures of Kiffin, Pearl and Hamilton. Or even the latest bit of football news: the dismissal of UT defensive back Janzen Jackson from the team.
There is no cure for Alzheimer's-type dementia. At least, not now there isn't. Summitt has been prescribed dementia-specific meds and mental exercises, but at some point -- hopefully years and years from now -- the Alzheimer's will begin making up ground.
If it happens, if Summitt one day fails to remember Tennessee because of the fog that is Alzheimer's, it won't change an eternal truth. And that truth is this: Tennessee will always remember Summitt.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.
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