Wiedmer: Fate of Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick not an easy call for Phillip Fulmer

Holly Warlick, who is entering her seventh season as women's basketball coach at the University of Tennessee, has received a contract extension through the 2021-22 season.

Hot Seat Holly.

Fair or not, that's the label all but certain to stick like glue to Tennessee Lady Vols basketball coach Holly Warlick over the next 12 months.

Wrapping up her sixth year as head coach following the unfortunate retirement of Pat Summitt due to Alzheimer's at the close of the 2012 season, Warlick's tenure reached its nadir Sunday when the Lady Vols lost an NCAA tourney game on their home court for the first time ever. They had won the first 57 of those opportunities.

With that 66-59 defeat to sixth-seeded Oregon State, UT was bounced before the Sweet 16 for the second year in a row. Also this season the Lady Vols took a surprisingly low seventh seed into the Southeastern Conference tourney, where they fell rather meekly to South Carolina in the quarterfinals.

To be fair, South Carolina is the defending national champion and Warlick's squad twice crushed the Gamecocks during the regular season by an average of 17.5 points per game. Revenge probably was inevitable.

But Tennessee also began this season with 15 straight victories, the coach seeming to blend perfectly a talented cast of newcomers with reliable seniors such as center Mercedes Russell and forward Jaime Nared. Down the stretch, however, the Lady Vols struggled, winning only 10 of their final 18 games against an SEC that was arguably stronger at the top but weaker in its bottom half.

Then came Sunday in Knoxville, when Tennessee was up 10 points after the first quarter but was outplayed the rest of the way by an Oregon State program on its way to its third straight Sweet 16.

Yet it may have been how Warlick handled this latest disappointment rather than the loss itself that could haunt her going forward.

Sounding a bit too much like former UT football coach Butch Jones' 2016 declaration that his players were "champions of life" after they blew their chance to become champions of the SEC East, Warlick went on an emotional rant that included the following words: "This isn't about winning or losing. It's about young ladies getting better on and off the court, and I don't think they deserve half the crap thrown at them."

Most close observers of this program over the past two or three years would conclude that most of the negative comments have been aimed at Warlick, who earns roughly $700,000 a year. That's the life of a head coach in any sport, but particularly one who oversees a program as highly regarded and intensely followed as the Lady Vols.

Win eight national championships and 1,098 games - as the late legend Summitt did - and they name the Thompson-Boling Arena court in your honor, erect bronze statues of you outside the arena and sell state license plates to help raise money for your foundation's fight against Alzheimer's.

However, should you lose an NCAA tourney game for the first time ever on your home court, blow a 23-point lead at Notre Dame during the regular season and pretty much become vulnerable to anyone and everyone within an SEC you once owned, you may no longer have friends in high places.

Is the growing frustration with Warlick deserved? That's more difficult to answer. The Lady Vols' place on the national stage had begun to wane a bit long before Warlick took over for good in the spring of 2012. Summitt won six of her NCAA titles during the tourney's first 17 years. She won two over the final 14 years she was officially the coach and didn't reach a single Final Four during her final four years on the job.

Though it's hard to say anything really has improved during Warlick's six seasons in charge, she has reached three Elite Eights and a Sweet 16. She's also boosted her SEC record the past three seasons from eight regular-season wins to 10 to 11 this time around.

New UT athletic director Phillip Fulmer also knows that she grew up in Knoxville, played for Summitt at UT and was an assistant coach for 27 years. In one of those Twilight Zone statistical comparisons, Fulmer was 152-52 coaching his Big Orange alma mater while Warlick now stands 153-54.

Beyond that, there's a sense from those who know her best that one of Warlick's greatest problems was also one of Fulmer's few shortcomings.

When she was Summitt's assistant, she played "good cop" to her boss's bad cop, much as Fulmer played "good cop" to longtime assistant David Cutcliffe's "bad cop" regarding the players. Almost every successful program has both. Without Cutcliffe, the Vols became mediocre. Without Summitt, Warlick often seems to be too soft on her players with no clearly defined bad cop to balance that.

The late, great Al McGwire once said of the men's coaching jobs at UCLA and Kentucky after the retirements of the legendary John Wooden and Adolph Rupp, "You never want to be the guy to replace a legend. You want to be the guy who replaces the guy who replaces the legend."

Warlick was forced to replace the biggest legend in women's college basketball far too soon. If she hasn't pleased everyone, she's also kept the program far more competitive than she might have.

But this much is also true, and the words came from Warlick herself following the loss to Oregon State.

"You come here wanting to win championships, and the expectations are extremely high," she said.

And when the coach doesn't meet those expectations or add to those championships, a change almost always is inevitable. With Warlick's teams seeming to drift further from a return to the Final Four rather than drawing closer, Fulmer's decision seems clear. It's when he'll make it that remains uncertain.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.