When Holly Warlick took over as head coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team in 2012 it capped a lifelong dream to be the one who replaced the legendary Pat Summitt. The only thing was, the scenario surrounding the hiring of Holly wasn't what anyone expected. Coach Summitt was forced to end her Hall of Fame career early because of early onset alzheimer's; the same disease that would take her life in 2016. It in no way was the ideal situation for Holly. She was forced to enter her first head coaching job while at the same time, watch her long-time friend and former coach die in a way that no one should ever have to experience.
I'm not making excuses at all for Holly Warlick.
She is a big girl and, even though this was her dream job, I believe she knew the kind of pressure that would be facing her beginning with day one. She has recruited well, and won a lot of games at Tennessee but she is no longer in the good graces of the fickle Tennessee fan base. As of today, the Lady Vols are in the midst of a three-game SEC losing streak, their first in more than 30 years. Despite getting off to a good start this season, the team has hit a major slump at the midway point and it remains to be seen if Holly can snap her team out of it.
In her defense, things have changed a lot since Coach Summitt's unequaled success. Schools were forced to improve their women's basketball program just to be able to simply stay close to Tennessee. Twenty years ago, there was Tennessee on top and then there was every other women's program in the country. UConn was the first program to challenge the Lady Vols and Coach Gino Auriemma won his second NCAA Championship in 2000. Since then the Lady Huskies have continually climbed the ladder and surpassed Tennessee as the standard bearer for women's basketball. Other schools have now caught up to UConn and parity in the game has become much more prominent.
Tennessee is still historically near the top of women's basketball but it's no longer the way it was. Coach Summitt created the game as we know it and Holly Warlick is now in charge. There will never be another Pat Summitt, we all know that, but I sincerely hope that Holly can turn things around and make the Lady Vols a championship contender again. It's not likely that athletic director Phillip Fulmer will make a coaching change as the university signed her to a three-year contract extension last year. However, knowing Holly as I do, she may decide to step down under pressure rather than watch her program continue to suffer.
Following a legend is one of the most difficult things to do in sports. Holly has done admirably but her biggest mistake has been the fact that she is not Pat Summitt. When Tennessee fans accept that, things may get a lot better in Knoxville.
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Randy Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org