BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Perception isn't always reality. If it were, second-year Tennessee women's basketball head coach Holly Warlick might have been crushed a year ago by the pressure the rest of world believed she was under in following Pat Summitt.
Especially after UT-Chattanooga ruined her debut, shocking the Lady Vols, 80-71.
"I thought my career was over," Warlick said with a smile during a Big Orange Caravan stop in the Scenic City last spring. "But then Pat came up to me outside the locker room, put her arm around me and said, 'I lost my first game, too.'"
So while it may have seemed to some that night inside UTC's McKenzie Arena as if the Lady Vols dynasty was done, Warlick knew better, having spent nearly three decades at Summitt's side.
"I don't think I had to prove myself," she said Thursday during the SEC basketball media event. "But it was difficult on our players."
Perhaps, but in that moment when so much could have gone wrong, especially with a second road game at No. 22 Georgia Tech less than 48 hours after the UTC loss, Warlick never broke a sweat, raised her voice or blamed her players.
"Holly was calm," said Meighan Simmons, the 2013-14 preseason SEC player of the year. "She said she expected great things from us. She was very intense in practice, but also very positive. Forty-eight hours later we played the way we were capable of playing (winning 71-54)."
Said Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell, a former UT grad assistant: "You couldn't help but be impressed and happy for Holly when she beat Georgia Tech. She handled a very tough moment great. But one of the best things about Holly is that she hasn't changed. She's not trying to be Pat Summitt. She's a great coach in her own right, and last year she proved it to everybody."
In winning 27 games, the SEC regular-season title and a spot in the NCAA Elite Eight, Warlick proved it well enough to be the league's coach of the year.
Both Simmons and Warlick believe that's only the beginning.
"The pressure's off her now," Simmons said. "We went to the Elite Eight, which nobody thought we could do. We can just play the game now the way she wants it played ... with great passion and attention to detail."
Added Warlick: "This is one of the most talented teams we've had in a while. We've got the pieces in place that can make us be special."
Those words are no doubt special to Lady Vols loyalists, who saw the last of UT's eight NCAA championship banners hung from the Thompson-Boling rafters high above The Summitt court in 2008. The details sound even better, however.
"Holly is more into us enjoying the game this year," Simmons said. "This season is just completely different. The mentality is different. It's much more about the details -- doing every little thing right all the time."
One thing that was completely different -- and something that tells much about just how special Warlick believes this season can become -- took place over the summer. Every Lady Vol stayed for summer school, which Warlick believed would quicken chemistry and development.
"We've probably had 80 percent of the team here in the past," said Simmons, who has stayed every summer. "But this year everybody stayed. We know something about every player on the team. We're much closer. This is what Holly wanted."
Yet this is also where one of Warlick's perceptions about her coaching is at least slightly different from her players' perception.
Of her practices this fall, the coach said, "After listening to my players, I think quality is better than quantity. I'm more mindful of injuries. I don't want to overwork us. One of the best things I've learned is to listen to the kids, listen to the staff."
Countered Simmons: "It might be different, but it's not less hard. It remains the same."
One other thing apparently remains the same, regardless of who's coaching the Lady Vols.
"The time is here," Simmons said, "to get a national championship."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org