KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s Holly Warlick insists she doesn’t feel much pressure replacing one of the greatest figures in the history of women’s basketball.
Warlick views becoming the Lady Vols’ head coach as stepping in for her mentor after a long apprenticeship.
Still, Pat Summitt’s legacy casts a big shadow.
Warlick, 54, played for Summitt and worked on her staff for 27 seasons. They won eight national championships together. Warlick now takes over for the winningest coach ever in Division I men’s or women’s college basketball. Her tenure begins Nov. 9 when the Lady Vols travel to Chattanooga.
“I know everybody says nobody wants to follow a legend, but this is a place I’ve always wanted to be, what I’ve seen myself doing,” Warlick said. “Pat and I have talked about this. We just didn’t talk about it in this manner, how it evolved.”
That makes this transition particularly unique.
Summitt coached the Lady Vols last season after being diagnosed with early-onset dementia Alzheimer’s type, but Warlick’s role expanded as Tennessee went 27-9 and reached a regional final. Warlick considered it the equivalent of a season-long job interview. Summitt stepped down in April after winning 1,098 games in 38 seasons, but she remains on staff as head coach emeritus
Summitt has moved out of her old office — which Warlick now occupies — but the former coach is just down the hall in her new space.
“I’ve been with Pat for so long, I see this person outside this iconic women’s basketball coach,” Warlick said. “I see her as a great friend of mine who’s been very successful in basketball. My perspective of Pat is probably a little different from everyone else’s.”
Warlick’s debut season already has included a distraction.
According to an affidavit released Oct. 3 as part of former Lady Vols media director Debby Jennings’ lawsuit against Tennessee and athletic director Dave Hart, Summitt said Hart told her before the 2012 NCAA tournament she wouldn’t return as coach this season. Summitt said in the affidavit that Hart later told her she’d misinterpreted his comments.
Summitt issued a statement two days later saying she never felt forced out and that she stepped down on her own.
“It’s for the courts and outside the basketball court to decide,” Warlick said. “I’ve been focusing on recruiting and focusing on this team.”
Summitt isn’t giving interviews as she focuses on her health, but she said at an April news conference that “Holly had earned this opportunity and I’m still going to be there for her and support her in every way.”
Warlick expects to have Summitt at every practice this season.
Several former Lady Vols support Warlick’s promotion.
“No one’s more deserving than coach Warlick,” said Chamique Holdsclaw, who led Tennessee to three straight national titles from 1996-98. “She’s been by coach Summitt’s side consistently. She played at Tennessee. She knows about the tradition. She knows about the expectations, and she’s learned from the best.”
That feeling is echoed by Tennessee’s current players.
“I don’t think there would be anybody else who could step in and handle it like she’s doing it,” junior guard Meighan Simmons said.
Warlick must maintain that continuity while showing she’s in charge now. One person familiar with this challenge is Bill Guthridge, who replaced Dean Smith as the North Carolina men’s basketball coach in 1997 after working on his staff for three decades.
Guthridge led North Carolina to two Final Four appearances the next three years before retiring. Guthridge said he benefited from frequent contact with Smith. He believes Warlick’s friendship with Summitt could help in a similar manner.
“We continued to talk basketball through those three years, and he was very helpful to me,” said Guthridge, who doesn’t know Warlick personally. “Dean Smith was very smart. I’m sure Pat is very intelligent in how they handle everything. My guess is it’s probably similar to what Tennessee has.”
Warlick has much in common with her predecessor, but that doesn’t mean everything’s staying the same. That will be apparent whenever an official makes a call that would have brought out one of Summitt’s trademark glares.
“I don’t have a stare,” Warlick said. “I’m not going to try to imitate Pat.”
Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker played for Summitt and Warlick while leading Tennessee to national titles in 2007 and 2008. Parker said both are outstanding communicators, but they make their points differently.
Parker remembered during her Tennessee career that Summitt might discipline a player in front of the entire team, whereas Warlick would take her aside.
“Do I think she’s going to be like Pat and give the death stare and all that stuff? No,” Parker said. “But it might be something different. She’s not like Pat. If that’s what you’re looking for, that’s not the hire. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. It’s definitely fun to have someone who’s within the program but also a little bit different.”
Warlick emphasizes rebounding and defense, the hallmarks of Summitt’s best teams. Tennessee’s defense hasn’t been as sharp lately, which helps explain why the Lady Vols haven’t reached the Final Four since 2008, their longest drought since the NCAA began running the tournament in 1982.
“I think the last couple of years, defense has not been a priority to our players, for whatever reason,” Warlick said. “It’s going to be a huge priority here. Our recruiting’s going back to getting kids who can play defense – obviously who are skilled players but are athletic and can play defense.”
Warlick put her foot down recently by sending the team on an hour-long punishment run at 5 a.m. Senior guard Taber Spani couldn’t recall enduring anything like that before.
“It’s definitely different from the Holly we’ve known previously, but I think as a head coach, you have to have that and you have to kind of lay down that line,” Spani said.
Spani offers experience to a Tennessee roster with only two seniors and one junior. The Lady Vols have nobody who started an NCAA tournament game last season.
Warlick said the mission remains the same.
“We want to go and win a national championship, regardless of whether we went last year, four years ago or whatever,” Warlick said. “It’s the same amount of expectations, maybe a little more since we haven’t been (since 2008). That’s our goal and what we’re recruiting to do.”
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