Mark Wiedmer: Warlick holds baton firmly

Mark Wiedmer: Warlick holds baton firmly

October 26th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports College08football

University of Tennessee women's basketball coach Holly Warlick

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

HOOVER, Ala. - Holly Warlick first handed out the white plastic batons to her University of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball players a couple of weeks ago.

On one side were stamped the words: "New Team, New Staff, New Goal."

Underneath those words were printed: "Same Heart, Same Pride, Same Fight."

On the other side of the hollow stick was written: "Take the Baton and Let's Go!"

"I don't have a Pat Summitt stare," Warlick in reference to the legendary coach she replaces this season, the only coach Lady Vols basketball has known for the past 38 seasons, the one who coached her during her own UT career 31 years ago.

"But we still have the same pride, the same tradition -- a huge tradition of doing things right, graduating kids, playing at the highest level."

A year ago Warlick entered this same meeting room at the Wynfrey and helped Summitt conduct her first full-blown media event since revealing a couple of months earlier that she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

What followed was an unofficial farewell tour -- Warlick sort of running the program day-to-day, but Summitt still at every practice and every game.

Then April arrived and Summitt officially retired to focus on her illness and hand the figurative baton to her longtime assistant.

"You're saddened for Coach Summitt," said former Lady Vols great Nikki Caldwell, now the head coach at LSU. "But at the same time we're all so happy for Holly. As former players, we were 100 percent behind that decision. Coach Summitt always told us that Lady Vols basketball was bigger than any player or coach. We all believe that, and we all believe Holly will do an exceptional job."

An early example of her determination to do that job: When Warlick felt that the players viewed her as possibly softer than Summitt -- the absence of that stare, perhaps -- she ordered them to rise at 5 a.m. and run for an hour.

Said an observer or those workouts: "The players were all shaking their heads and saying, 'That's not the Holly we knew as an assistant.'"

Maybe that's a good thing and maybe it's not. You are what you are. But Warlick has been around long enough to know how she believes a head coach must act.

She even hinted that she intended to return to the Lady Vols' roots, back when they were the most feared team in the women's game.

"We're going to grind it out, play hard and disruptive, the old-fashioned way," she said. "We're still Tennessee. We just have a different leader."

Not that the old leader isn't still around more days than not in her role as coach emeritus.

"Pat doesn't miss a practice," Warlick said. "Well, she missed one last week to do some work with her foundation. She even asked me if it was OK. She's been about as relaxed and rested as I've seen her in a long time. There's a real comfort level in that."

Her tough practices aside, Warlick also appears more relaxed than 12 months ago.

Told Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma's suggestion that the rims needed to be lowered from their current height of 10 feet because the women miss too many layups, Warlick quickly replied, "Guys miss layups, too."

Upon first seeing Caldwell, she loudly observed, "If LSU had a coach, they could win. But they don't."

When a grinning Caldwell responded that she'd want the rims higher because her players can jump, Warlick wondered where they'd learned that, since all Caldwell ever did was shoot at UT.

At that point, the LSU coach fired back: "If that's true, it's your fault because you were my position coach."

So that oversized Lady Vols family that Summitt raised remains tight, even as they spread across the coaching landscape, spreading the fight and insight of the greatest women's coach ever.

"She doesn't have to be Coach Summitt," Caldwell said. "She just has to be Holly Warlick and trust that she knows best, because she does."