Holly Warlick takes up Lady Vols mantle

Holly Warlick takes up Lady Vols mantle

November 9th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Local Regional News

Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick cheers during a game last season.

Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick cheers during...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

POLL: Can the Lady Vols win a national title without Pat Summitt?

"Big eyes." That's Tennessee Lady Vols freshman guard Andraya Carter's description of her more veteran teammates' reaction the first time new UT women's basketball coach Holly Warlick called a 5 a.m. practice last month.

"It was a little bit of a surprise," she said. "But I think it got everybody's attention."

At 7 p.m. tonight at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's McKenzie Arena, Warlick will have the attention of the entire women's basketball world, its eyes focused on her ability to replace her former coach and boss -- Pat Summitt, who racked up 1,098 wins and eight NCAA titles.

"It's going to be very unusual not to see Pat on their bench after all these years," said UTC women's coach Wes Moore, who was 0-9 against Summitt, the untouchable coach who retired in April to focus on her fight against Alzheimer's.

"Unfortunately, sometimes life slaps you in the face. Women's basketball has lost a legend, but it's fitting that Holly's the one to take her place," he said. "It will make the transition much smoother than if it had been someone else."

Said Warlick, "We're still Tennessee. We just have a different leader."

That's no doubt what UT athletic director Dave Hart was hoping for when he tapped the 54-year-old Warlick last spring to replace Summitt, despite the urgings of some to look elsewhere.

Perhaps believing that it would take someone daring enough to ride

motorcycles -- a Warlick hobby -- to succeed the greatest coach in women's basketball history, Hart handed the three-time Lady Vol All-American and 27-year assistant the keys to Summitt's office with five hard-to-misunderstand words: "This is Holly's team now."

Forty years ago this month, Joe B. Hall stood exactly where Warlick does today -- about to replace a basketball legend, in his case, the University of Kentucky's Adolph Rupp.

Much as Warlick is a Knoxville native, Hall was raised just up the road from Lexington, Ky.

Just as Warlick played for Summitt at UT, Hall played for Rupp at UK -- though he later transferred to Sewanee: The University of the South. And, just like Warlick and Summitt, Hall became Rupp's top assistant.

So when Kentucky's mandatory retirement age forced the Baron of the Bluegrass to the sidelines for good in the spring of 1972, Hall replaced him.

"My biggest problem wasn't erasing Coach Rupp's shadow," Hall said last week. "No one will ever do that, and shouldn't.

"The toughest thing for me was moving up from assistant to head coach.

Suddenly you have to deal with budgets and tickets and booster functions, things that you rarely had to worry about as an assistant."

But Hall never believed that was his biggest challenge during the 13 years he coached the Wildcats to 297 victories, three Final Fours and the 1978 national championship.

"Coach Rupp kept his office and his television show," Hall recalled. "So many people in the administration had a hard time accepting me as the head coach. They'd always known me as an assistant.

"It can be a very difficult situation. That's why I've come to believe that it's probably better for the new coach to have been hired from the outside."

But East Tennessee State University coach Murry Bartow recalls that such a transition didn't necessarily make things easier for his late father, Gene, who left Illinois after just one season to replace UCLA legend John Wooden in the spring of 1975.

"Dad knew it would be tough," Bartow said Thursday. "But he couldn't turn it down. Coach Wooden and his legacy cast a big shadow, though."

How big? The Wizard of Westwood retired having just knocked off Hall's UK team in that year's national championship game to collect his record 10th title over a dizzying span of just 12 seasons.

In one of the best unsung sports quips of all time, Hall ‹ already knowing much about the arduous and thankless task about to befall Wooden's yet-unnamed replacement ‹ jokingly offered himself for the job, sagely adding, "Why ruin two men's lives?"

Nevertheless, Gene Bartow bit. He had artfully guided Memphis State to a NCAA title game loss to Wooden's 1973 squad and he was intrigued by what he could accomplish with the UCLA Bruins brand.

Much like Rupp, "Coach Wooden kept an office right down the hall from my dad," Murry Bartow recalled. "Coach Wooden was great to my father, they became very good friends. But by the second year it became a no-win situation. Some of the fans were unrealistic. Dad felt as if were coaching not to lose."

And Bartow went 52-9 over two seasons, reaching the Final Four in 1976.

So what advice would Murry Bartow give Warlick?

"Just trust your gut," he said. "Holly's a great coach. She'll do fine. And it's a lot different than my dad following Coach Wooden. She and Pat are so close, such good friends. I'm sure Coach Summitt will be there to help her, if needed."

Some might believe Summitt is too close. She attends nearly every practice, often offering advice, though neither Warlick nor the players seem to mind at this point.

"As players we love to see her," senior forward Taber Spani said. "When it comes to motivational skills, Coach Summitt's still a master. But just to talk about life with her is such a thrill. We're fortunate that she can

still come to almost every practice."

Last month, Warlick told ESPN: "I don't care what disease Pat has. I intend to pick that brain as long as I can."

And so far, it really does seem to be business as usual in Knoxville, right down to recruiting, despite Summitt's retirement.

Carter signed with UT a year ago after Summitt's Alzheimer's was disclosed. "My father sat me down and said, 'You either bleed orange and white or you don't,' and I still loved everything about becoming a Lady Vol," she said.

Warlick also has recently received commitments from the No. 1 player in the 2013 class, 6-foot-5 Mercedes Russell; the No. 8 player, 6-foot Jannah Tucker; and No. 42, 5-foot-11 Jordan Reynolds.

None of those players is from Tennessee.

"I keep hearing how Tennessee's going to be down," said UTC's Moore. "I don't feel too sorry for Holly when she just got the No. 1 player in the country. Holly's handled this whole thing perfectly, keeping Pat involved and all. No matter what you say, it's still one of the country's premiere programs."

Keeping it that way is never easy. Especially on the heels of a legend.

Kentucky's Hall remains the only coach over the past 50 years to directly follow an inarguable college coaching giant (Rupp, Wooden, Alabama football's Paul "Bear" Bryant, North Carolina basketball's Dean Smith, Indiana basketball's Bob Knight) and win a national championship.

"Holly's always been the players' coach," first-year Lady Vols assistant Kyra Elzy told ESPN. "Now she's the one who really has to get after them."