There's a Pat Summitt bobblehead doll on the shelf above Holly Warlick's desk. Usually, it has a whistle hanging around its neck—the one Summitt presented to her longtime assistant coach last year when she formally stepped down, ending a season of stress, speculation, and grief that followed Summitt's announcement that she has early-onset Alzheimer's Disease—but lately, the whistle's been out in the front office because so many people want to see it. Almost as much as the eight gleaming Waterford Glass national championship trophies, it is a historical artifact. But Summitt stays where she is, right over Warlick's shoulder.
"I like having her here," Warlick says.
Leaving aside bleed-and-die partisans, there are two kinds of sports fans: those who love winners and those who love underdogs. Both kinds can find something to love in Holly Warlick, a winner to whom nothing has ever come easy.
Nobody ever worked harder for a college scholarship than Warlick, who went to the University of Tennessee as a track athlete, but worked out with the basketball team in hopes of impressing the coach—and became an All American. She made the 1980 Olympic team, but had to stay home after President Jimmy Carter ordered a boycott of the Moscow games in retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
And nobody ever landed a dream job under more difficult circumstances.
As Summitt's longest-serving assistant and most recently her associate head coach, Warlick had passed up head-coaching jobs and stayed put for 27 years until Summitt's Alzheimer's diagnosis thrust her into what ultimately became a yearlong job interview. That description of last season—when she took over game coaching and media duties for Summitt, whose record includes a record-setting 1,098 wins, eight national championships, and seven NCAA Coach of the Year Awards—makes her wince.
"Honestly, you can't think of it that way," Warlick says. "That would be doing our staff, Pat, and the team an injustice. We just wanted to make sure that this was what Pat wanted to do. We all wanted to make sure Pat was taken care of and not put into uncomfortable situations. And now, I want her around as much as possible.
"If I don't see her, I pick up the phone and say, ‘Where are you?' In Pat's mind, she feels that she needs to step away and give me room. In my mind, I want her here. She's still the boss to me. I'm following behind a legend, but I get to be around her, too, and I'm going to soak up all the knowledge I can. Why would we change?"
Her debut as a head coach made her friends wince. But the team rebounded from the embarrassing season-opener loss to the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, and despite a spate of injuries that sidelined three starters (one, Andraya Carter, for the entire season), the Lady Vols persevered through conference play and finished strong enough to finish first in the league and get Warlick voted Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year.
Author and columnist Sally Jenkins, who has co-written all three of Summitt's books (the most recent of which, Sum It Up, has just hit the top of the New York Times best-seller list), is a close observer of Tennessee women's basketball who admits to being surprised at Warlick's success.
"She's such a charmer. I've always loved her. But at the same time, I'm surprised at how good a head coach she has become, and how quickly," Jenkins says. "As a sportswriter, I know these transitions just don't work this well. I think Holly Warlick has proved this season that we didn't know everything about her—the ability to make great hires, to recruit right off the bat—I thought she would struggle a little more in this first year on the job. No one expected Holly to be able to do anything this season. No one."
Not even John Wooden, in Jenkins' view, could have been expected to take the injury-riddled remnants of a team that lost five seniors and the Naismith Coach of the Century and come out on the other side as regular-season SEC champions.
"And guess what? Hello—they're still Tennessee," Jenkins says.
When Holly Warlick was in the sixth grade, she tried out for the school play and won the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.
"Will and I gave her so much grief over that, clicking our heels and calling Auntie Em and asking her where Toto was. We aggravated her so much she had no choice but to excel," says her sister, Marion Ferrill.
Frances Hollingworth Warlick was born June 11, 1958, in Anderson, S.C., to Fran and Bill Warlick. Named for her mother and her paternal grandmother, she joined sister, Marion, 6; and brother Will, 3, to complete the family household. She weighed in at just under 5 pounds.
"She was a tiny little thing," says Fran Warlick. "My mother used to say she looked like a little rat in that baby bed, but she was just the cutest thing."
Bill Warlick was a salesman whose job with Owens Corning brought the family to Knoxville from South Carolina in 1962 when Holly was 4.
"She was born in South Carolina, but she'd fight a circle saw if anybody tried to tell her she's not from Knoxville," Fran says.
The Warlicks got active in the Rocky Hill community's robust recreation scene almost as soon as the family got unpacked. Holly, Marion, and Will all remember working alongside their dad, clearing rocks off the new ball field at Alki Lane.
"I think God just picked that place out for us," Fran says of the family's home on Rudder Lane off Northshore Drive. "We're Rocky Hillians, and to me, it's the best place in Knoxville. There must have been 20 children there, and everybody was into sports. Holly's best friends were two brothers, Tiger and Greg Williams. She'd come in and say, ‘Mom, can I spend the night with Tiger and Greg?' I'd say, ‘Have at it.' And when my husband died, everybody was so wonderful to us."
As a player, Warlick was a happy warrior whose trademark was non-stop, sweaty hustle and shot-from–a-cannon speed, and she was pretty much like that from birth. She is straightforward, intense, and assertive like Fran, who at age 84 is still working two days a week at a West Knoxville hotel and says she plans to keep doing it until she's 90. On court, Fran and Ferrill sit in the front row across from the visitors' bench and Fran says Holly won't let her sit near the home bench because she's never quite sure what her mom is going to say and how loudly she'll say it.
Holly inherited her love of sports from her dad, who taught her the fundamentals of how to bat and dribble; he died of a sudden aneurysm when she was 17. His death not only took away the family's major breadwinner but also Holly's biggest fan.
"After he died, we had to move into a smaller home and I shared a room with my mom. But you do what you have to do. My mom worked quite a bit—in the hotel business, it's seven days a week, so we learned to be responsible at a very early age. I had already started working when I was 10, keeping score at Rocky Hill ballpark," Warlick says.
"From the time she was born, Holly was just special," recalls Ferrill. "Our mother always told us there was nothing we couldn't do, and Holly believed that. When she was in high school, Mom and I took her to the state track meet where she ran the 440, the 220, and the 100-yard dash. There was a kid from Memphis who was better than she was in the 440, and got ahead of Holly. At the end of the race Holly was throwing up and sick to her stomach, but she beat that kid and set a state record. That same year, she was in the News Sentinel Relays and won six medals."
Will Warlick lives in Columbia, S.C. His job keeps him on the road, but he catches as many Lady Vols games as he can on TV and comes through Knoxville as often as he can for a pan of Fran's banana pudding. He remembers his baby sister as a persistent little kid—"a scrapper and a hustler who didn't know how to quit"—and says she used to kind of tag along with him and his buddies hoping to get a chance to play.
"There weren't very many girls in the neighborhood, but there were quite a few athletes," he says. "We played in back yards and vacant lots, whatever game was in season. If we needed one more to make a team, she was always there wanting to play. She was always kind of small and thin, a string-bean, really, but she was pretty fast, and she played a lot of pickup games with us. She could hold her own. She always had a competitive spirit about her."
Ferrill has been having health challenges lately, and is fighting a two-front battle against breast cancer and Parkinson's disease. She and Fran were sitting in their usual seats waiting for player introductions at for the ESPN2-televised "Pink-Out" Breast Cancer Awareness game against Vanderbilt Feb. 17, when there was a deviation from the standard pre-game rituals: Here came Holly with a pink-hued game ball. She went over to Fran and Ferrill's seats, gave Marion the ball, and said "You're my hero." For a moment, toughness left the building.
During Holly's senior year in high school (she and radio commentator Bert Bertlecamp were voted Most Athletic in the Bearden High School Class of '76), Pat Summitt was still Pat Head and the TSSAA was acting like it had never heard of Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, which outlawed gender discrimination—even in athletics.
Opportunities for girls to participate in sports were limited, but Warlick made the most of them. She excelled in track and basketball—for girls, it was still a pokey, six-on-six, half-court game designed to take it easy on female innards, which were deemed too fragile to survive the rigors of the full-court game played in college.
Pat Head wasn't particularly enthusiastic about recruiting players nurtured in that system, but one night she went out to Bearden High School to scout their hotshot point guard. Unfortunately, Warlick sprained her ankle and failed to impress, and didn't get the scholarship offer she desperately wanted. She accepted a track scholarship instead, and tried out for basketball as a walk-on.
Terry Hull Crawford was the Women's Track & Field head coach at UT who recruited Warlick. An East Tennessee native who ran for three national titles when she was a UT student, she coached her team to Tennessee's first national women's team title ever in 1981, winning the AIAW outdoor meet. Now the USA Track & Field's director of coaching, Hull says Warlick was one of the top track prospects in the country coming out of high school.
"Holly was kind of conflicted, so Pat and I agreed that she would have opportunity to go out for the (basketball) team, and of course, she made the team her freshman year. She came to track in the spring, but by the end of that year, Pat had a scholarship available for her. She ran a sub-56 400 meters and long jumped 19 feet—those were really outstanding marks. I am quite confident she would have been an All-American."
Hull attended basketball games and saw flashes of what might have been when she watched Warlick's fast breaks: "I remember the frustration Pat had with her to be a little more conservative. She would blow down the court too fast. She had such quickness."
Was she upset with Warlick's decision to pursue basketball?
"I was saddened. Any time a coach sees such great potential… But my aspirations for Holly probably exceeded what Holly's expectations were for herself at the time. She hated to disappoint me, but I accepted that she had to go where her heart was. It was a decision that she wrestled with, and we've stayed good friends to this day. Every time I'm in Knoxville, I go by to see all of them."
The first time Debby Jennings noticed Holly Warlick was at the 1976 season opener against Kentucky. It was the Lady Vols' first game ever in Stokely Athletics Center, and tipoff was right after a home football game against Mississippi State. Football fans who got into the women's game free with their ticket stubs had no clue that they about to witness one of the most stunning performances ever turned in by a player in orange—actually, nobody did.
It was the debut of Trish Roberts, an Olympian who had played in the Montreal games the previous summer with Tennessee Coach Pat Head, who had so impressed her that she transferred to Tennessee from Emporia State Teacher's College in Kansas for her senior year. Jennings, who would later become the UT Women's Athletics Department's sports information director, was the sports editor at UT's student newspaper, the Daily Beacon, and had a front-row seat when Roberts set a still-unequaled single game scoring record by hanging 51 points on the Wildcats. But Jennings' most vivid memory of the game was watching a tow-headed walk-on freshman point guard flying up and down the court with a devil-take-the-hindmost disregard for technique or personal safety.
"She was a speedster with quick hands. She'd go in for the layup so fast, she'd brick it off the backboard," Jennings says. "Trish was the trailer, and would get the putback. That's how she got 51. They were quite a combo.
"To this day we still tease Holly. And to this day she swears she was robbed. She tried to convince us that these were assists, not shot attempts. She was a charmer and you noticed right away that this girl from Bearden had a lot of hometown fans. She smiled the entire time she played the game—she was just grinning while she was guarding you."
Sally Jenkins makes a prescient observation about Warlick's impressive inaugural year as coach:
"It's got to be a big headache to other coaches (in the conference) that Holly Warlick is as good at this job as she is. The fact that you have to cope with Holly Warlick makes every coach in the SEC's life a lot less pleasant… But the surprisingness of it is really wonderful. I certainly expected her to be a good head coach—I don't know that I expected her to be a great head coach."
Her speculation that Warlick's success is going to aggravate some other coaches may already be starting to come true. Kentucky's head coach Matthew Mitchell, who started his collegiate-level coaching career when Summitt hired him as a graduate assistant at Tennessee, is one of the rising young stars in the profession. His team was projected to finish first in the SEC, with Tennessee in fifth place. With Summitt's retirement, a hefty raise from his administration last season made Mitchell the highest-paid coach in the league. His seven-year contract pays him $1 million annually plus perks and incentives. Warlick's $485,000 annual salary plus similar perks and incentives gives her the seventh-most lucrative deal in the league. Geographic proximity mean the two programs are going to be competing for many of the same players on the recruiting trail, and Mitchell couldn't have been happy when Warlick hired away his associate head coach and super-recruiter Kyra Elzy.
By the season's end, Tennessee nosed out Kentucky out of the top spot in the league with a 14-2 record. Kentucky finished second at 13-3, taking home the consolation prize of besting the Lady Vols 78-65 in the regular season finale in Lexington. This game made Mitchell the all-time winningest coach in his program's history, which probably took away some of the sting of falling short of expectations. Both Tennessee and Kentucky, however, would lose to eventual tournament champion, SEC newcomer, Texas A&M.
This, by the way, underscores the imperative that nobody in the SEC should sleep on the Aggies and their courtly old coach, Gary Blair, who spent many years at the University of Arkansas getting annual Pat Summitt butt whippings. Blair is back and—get this—he is the only SEC coach whose team owns a National Championship trophy (the Aggies came out of almost nowhere to win it all in 2011 when they were still part of the Big 12). Respectful and funny, Blair is a fan and media favorite and is no fun to hate.
But an incident at the end of the Tennessee-Kentucky game could be the spark that ignites epic battles to come. Mitchell called a time out with his team ahead by 15 points with 43 seconds left to play. He wanted to substitute his senior All-American, A'dia Mathies, in and out of the game so the crowd could give her a proper ovation. This clearly annoyed Warlick, who could be seen mouthing the words "Bush League." She blew by him in the handshake line and later tweeted, "Yep I will remember 42 seconds left."
A Kentucky fan responded, "Can't fault the man for trying to give A'dia her final standing O."
A Tennessee fan had the last word: "For real! He's such a drama queen! We all know what that was all about! oh well, payback is a beeotch! GO LADY VOLS!!!"
This doesn't rise to the epic level of the Tennessee/UConn saga, but it does set the table for the kind of heated rivalry that spices the game and packs the house.
In Summitt's new book, she comments several times about how much alike she and Warlick are. That's hardly surprising. Twenty-eight of Warlick's 32 years of coaching experience have been spent with her old friend and college mentor, and they share an almost identical coaching philosophy (defense first), work ethic (relentless), and speech mannerisms (pure Tennessee).
There are some subtle differences, though.
"Practice-wise, Holly may be even more volatile than Pat," says journalist Maria Cornelius, who covers women's basketball for Inside Tennessee. "She's got as much of Pat in her practices as any coach I've ever seen. Her language is a bit more flavorful than Pat's, and overall there's a little bit less of an edge to her. I think the upperclassmen were surprised to see Holly flip gears on them and all of a sudden become the enforcer."
Warlick can't duplicate the famous Summitt stare, but she can whistle. She hangs two fingers on her lower lip and blows. The sound is piercing, and she says she learned it from childhood friend Benny Beasley's mother. Her sister Marion says she's the one who taught Holly to whistle. Wherever she learned it, that whistle is effective.
"It definitely gets our attention," says senior Taber Spani.
A support staff member giggles about the night the referees called a timeout and started looking for the contraband whistle that had disrupted the game. They didn't find it.
That, the staffer said, was because it was Warlick, who never even realized she'd caused a disturbance.
There are other differences, too. Summitt was a stickler where bad language is concerned. Warlick's been known to drop the occasional bit of indiscreet terminology. Warlick calls more set plays, and although she didn't have any noticeable trouble transitioning from Pat buffer to disciplinarian, her edges are softer.
"Pat's default expression is set on stern. Holly's is set on good-humored. Her natural resting position is a lot more relaxed," Jenkins says.
Warlick has sailed serenely through the tumult of the combination of the men's and the women's athletics departments, which has generated a wave of litigation and cost several longtime friends and colleagues their jobs. She says that Director of Athletics Dave Hart has been cooperative and considerate of her needs.
In her rare moments of leisure, she finds refuge in her home with her dogs and her cat and her 5 acres on the lake in deep west Knox County (she actually likes cutting grass and, to despite her mother's disapproval, sometimes lets her dogs swim in the pool). And she just keeps moving forward, refusing to entertain questions about filling Pat Summitt's shoes.
"I don't let my mind go there. I just don't," she says. "I'm trying to carry on a tradition that I helped Pat build. Those are big shoes to fill, but I don't dwell on that. If I sat around and thought about following the legend that is Pat, I'd probably go crazy. Last year, I never wanted to be perceived to be stepping on Pat's toes. It was still Pat Summitt's program and I was there to do what an assistant was supposed to do. It was difficult for Pat and it's been difficult for me, as well.
"Sometimes it was easy. I was helping, protecting Pat. Then it would hit me at weird times, like driving home down the interstate at other times, I'd think, God this is crazy. And I'd cry. It was just hard, and still is. I want Pat around as much as she can be around.
"This year, Pat's not wanting to step on my toes. I tell her, ‘Pat, nothing you do bothers me, and I want you around as much as you want to be here.' Now, it's up to myself and the staff and the kids to carry on this unbelievable program."
Has the team overachieved?
"According to everybody else's expectations, yes," Warlick says. "We have the talent, but a lot of our people just didn't have the experience. When you look at where we were projected to be [fifth in the league by consensus predictions], absolutely we've overachieved."
Like the team player she is, Warlick credits her coaching staff, one of whom, the indefatigable Dean Lockwood, is a former head coach and a holdover from Summitt's staff whose work with post players like Nicky Anosike and Isabella Harrison has been stellar.
Her new hires have been hailed as brilliant:
Former Lady Vol Kyra Elzy was the associate head coach at the University of Kentucky and was instrumental in their outstanding recruiting. She sports two National Championship rings earned as a player and now is Warlick's recruiting coordinator. A master at social media, she signs her tweets #StillTenn.
Jolette Law is the former head coach at the University of Illinois and was a longtime assistant to C. Vivian Stringer at Rutgers. She is also known for her recruiting prowess, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast.
And like the coach she is, Warlick doesn't like to look too far ahead. But she cannot hide her excitement about next season, when she will return SEC Co-Player of the Year Meighan Simmons and SEC Freshman of the Year, Bashaara Graves, plus a core group of young talent that will be experienced, battle tested, and—with a little luck—recovered from a slew injuries. They will be joined by next season's freshmen: two talented guards, Jordan Reynolds and Jannah Tucker, and 6-6 center Mercedes Russell, ranked by some recruiting services as the top player in the country.
"We've got great things to come," Warlick says. "But the only way I know how to do this is one day at a time."
The last home game of Warlick's career as a Tennessee basketball player was a 89-72 victory over the Clemson Tigers in March, 1980. As soon as the final buzzer sounded, the All American point guard became UT's first athlete—male or female—to have her jersey retired.
The gesture was purely symbolic. "Real" retirement would have to wait until the conclusion of the AIAW National Championship game against Old Dominion, which the Lady Vols lost, 68-53. But that last night at Stokely, Fran Warlick, who had been watching her daughter excel at every kind of athletics imaginable since she was old enough to follow the big kids to a field, court, or track, couldn't have been prouder.
Fran was probably the only other person in the gym the night Holly's jersey was retired who knew the significance of Number 22—she can still hear the sound of his voice telling her how to remember his birthday:
"‘It's April 22nd—Big 22. Just like Charlie Choo-Choo Justice!'" Fran says in her Low Country-inflected, Paula Deen-esque voice. "I met him in November and married him in January, so I guess he was a pretty good salesman. He would have been so proud of Holly that night, and even more so today."
He would have had plenty of company.
Some years ago, a Tennessee assistant coach would occasionally be asked if she'd want to become Summitt's successor some day. She'd answer with an eyeroll followed by a rhetorical question:
"Who wants to be the guy that came after Bear Bryant?"
Holly Warlick did, and she's holding up just fine.