NEW YORK -- The update on Pat Summitt's health caught Geno Auriemma by surprise. It's simply the news nobody wanted to hear, especially her former rival who built the Connecticut program trying to model off her success coaching Tennessee.
Summitt's family said Sunday that the last few days have been difficult for the former Tennessee women's basketball coach as her Alzheimer's disease progresses. Auriemma, who had been traveling all day back from Europe, heard the update at the Phoenix Mercury-New York Liberty game on Sunday.
"It's sad to see her family go through this," Auriemma told The Associated Press. "It's really difficult."
Auriemma credited Summitt for raising the bar for him and countless other coaches.
"She was the one that everyone tried to emulate. That was the program everyone tried to be," he said.
He remembered when they first played in 1995 when Summitt agreed to come up and play the Huskies on national television.
"I don't think anyone was surprised she wanted to play in that game," Auriemma said. "That's what she did. We try to do that. Play everybody anytime, anywhere. That's how she built her program to where it is."
Her only child, Tyler Summitt, said in 2012 after her diagnosis on "CBS This Morning" that his mother was stepping into a new role. She would become head coach emeritus at the school and focus on her efforts as spokesperson in the fight against the disease through The Pat Summitt Foundation Fund.
"We've always known that God has had a bigger plan for her than just coaching basketball," he said. "And so, she's stepping into a new role where she can still mentor her players and be a role model for them."
Amid reports of Summitt's failing health over the weekend, her family issued a statement asking for prayers and saying that the 64-year-old Summitt is surrounded by the people who mean the most to her. It also asked for privacy.
The statement was posted on the Pat Summitt Foundation's website and was issued by Erin Freeman, a spokeswoman for the Summitt family.
"She's meant so much to the game and the sport. I've always had wonderful interactions with her when I was a broadcaster," Rebecca Lobo said. "I was completely unaware until I saw the stuff this morning. It made me really sad."
For all the talk of the rivalry that UConn and Tennessee had from that first game in 1995 to the last in 2007, the Huskies all respected Summitt.
"You can't say enough about her," Diana Taurasi said after the Mercury's OT win. "If it wasn't for her, we probably wouldn't be playing in Madison Square Garden. Connecticut never would have been Connecticut. She made people take notice of the sport at a time when it probably wasn't easy. She forced the hand. She was the one.}
"It's really sad for her family and her friends, her ex-teammates. Her basketball family is hurting right now. Everyone is."
Swin Cash was emotional after Sunday's game, talking about the legendary coach who recruited her in high school. Cash said her college choice came down to Connecticut and Tennessee. She chose the Huskies.
"Out of my class, I was the only one that had that decision," said Cash, choking up at times. "It was probably one of the hardest things I ever had to do was call her up and tell her I wasn't coming. I respected what she stood for so much."
Cash recalled whenever she later saw Summitt, the coach would ask how her mother and grandmother were doing.
"I continue to pray for her. It doesn't matter how many times we beat Tennessee or they beat us, my level of respect for coach Summitt was right up there," Cash said. "She was one of the best ever to do it, being the trailblazer that she was."
Cash smiled remembering when Summitt spoke at Cash's athletic awards banquet when she was in 10th grade.
"She walked in, and everyone was like that's Pat Summitt," Cash said. "I was like I know, she's been recruiting me. It was just the presence she had when she walked into a room."
Taurasi echoed that sentiment recalling the first time she saw Summitt in person.
"I was playing in an AAU tournament in Coco Beach, and she walked in the gym," she said. "I grew up watching SEC basketball as it was the only thing on CBS. To see her walk in a gym, you truly understand it was serious."