Poor Holly

I sort of feel sorry for Holly Warlick. I’m far from a fan, but I do feel bad for her. Warlick is the head coach for the Tennessee Lady Vols basketball program who just finished their season last season with a one and done appearance at the NCAA tournament. The heat is on from everyone to replace Warlick whose team endured their lowest win total (19 games) since winning only 16 games during the 1976-76 season, the program’s second season in existence. (That year they only played 27 games total).

How do you follow a legend? Not only was she a legend, but also a pioneer in college athletics. Pat Summitt was not only the school’s legendary coach, but the one responsible for there being a team.

It’s odd to look in this day and age and see that the Lady Vols in their entire existence have had only two coaches – Summitt and Warlick. Many college and pro programs go through almost a dozen head coaches in a ten-year span. Tennessee has been fortunate.

Under Warlick the team has slowly become less dominant as the win totals show since she took over beginning with the 2012-13 season. But UT fans expect perfection – or near perfection. Summitt owns the record for the most wins in college basketball (both men’s and women’s) winning eight NCAA tournaments and during one stretch three in a row. Under Warlick the Lady Vols have gotten no further than the Elite Eight in the tournament, only making the second round two years in a row before this year’s one and done.

As a head coach on paper Warlick is very successful. She has won over 72 percent of her games. Many long time NCAA coaches would kill for a record like that. The problem is she follows Summitt who won 84 percent of her games and 87 percent against SEC foes compared with Warlick’s 67 percent.

Since last week’s loss in the tournament the voices have been getting louder that a change needs to be made in the program. There was even news that there is as little dissention on the team, something never heard of before in the UT program and rarely in women’s college athletics. Warlick has done well since taking over the reigns from Summitt, but not great. And that is the problem and a conundrum faced by any coach that replaces a legend. Other schools found that out the hard way in multiple sports.

After 27 years at the helm at UCLA and winning eight NCAA national championships in nine years John Wooden retired, possibly the gold standard among college basketball coaches along with Summitt. His successor was Gene Bartow who only stayed at the school for two seasons even though he had a better winning percentage than Wooden (85 percent to 81 percent). Bartow like Warlick did well but did not get any further than the Final Four, which during that era was not good enough for UCLA fans and boosters. Bartow left and was the first basketball head coach at UAB where he had success bringing teams to the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Since Wooden’s retirement 40 years ago the team has gone through ten head coaches with only one lasting ten seasons (Ben Howland).

North Carolina’s Dean Smith won 879 games and two national championships in 36 years coaching the team. For almost four decades his name was synonymous with North Carolina and success, who coached a ton of NBA talent with Michael Jordan topping the list. And while North Carolina remains a top tier basketball program, Smith was initially was seceded by Bill Guthridge. Like Warlick he was a longtime assistant to a legend. Guthridge only lasted three seasons with two Final Four appearances. Roy Williams has been coach since 2003 after a successful career at Kansas. Since joining the Tar Heels he’s won two national championships and has only missed the NCAA tournament once.

You can see a lot more in college football, too many to mention but if you find a coach synonymous with a school you will find a successor that did not last very long. It’s an old saying you don’t want to follow a legend. It has been true almost every time and the shadow cast by the legend can never be equaled. Unfortunately that is the case for Warlick.

Unlike other successors Warlick has lasted longer than anyone else (seven seasons currently). That could be that there still isn’t as much excitement over women’s sports compared to the men and others may see it the women’s programs are more than just winning games with a greater emphasis on the player/student than titles. But Tennessee is a little different than most programs. Warlick is in an impossible situation that is not her fault. Unlike most coaches that followed so-called legends, Pat Summitt was more than that to the university and women’s athletics as a whole.

Summitt not only was the school’s first head coach, she basically built it from scratch doing everything from washing uniforms to driving the team van. Summitt’s 1,098 wins at Tennessee is an NCAA record for both men’s and women’s basketball. Only University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma has a real chance at toppling that record with 1,060 wins currently. If Auriemma remains at UConn for two more seasons her record will unfortunately fall.

Warlick not only replaced the most successful coach in college basketball history, she replaced the only coach the Volunteers ever knew, something unheard of in sports be it men’s or women, especially in today’s competitive climate where head coaches aren’t given much leeway to succeed. And while whispers about Warlick’s coaching have been heard since the day she officially took over they are much more audible now.

In the last 15 years women’s sports, most notably basketball had become higher profile. When a lot of schools were just fulfilling Title IX requirements, women’s basketball became popular because there were a handful of dominant teams (casual fans prefer winners) and the women’s game was more fundamental – a team effort and not as much every man for themselves as in men’s basketball.

With it’s increasing exposure we are seeing more money coming into a lot of these programs and have become an asset to the schools and less a liability.

Does Holly Warlick deserve the growing criticism she’s been receiving? Maybe so. After averaging over 28 wins her first three seasons (many will credit that to she inherited Summitt’s players) to less than 22 the last four seasons and in the past four years the best the team has done has been to finish in fourth place in the SEC, finishing tied for eighth place this season. Those are numbers that are not what voracious Tennessee fans are used to or expect.

Sports today is all about winning and losing and bringing revenue to the school. There is little to be said about loyalty. This makes Warlick a potential casualty after seven years leading the Lady Vols. Maybe it’s time for women’s sports to take that next step and like men’s sports look at wins and points totals, especially if they want to compete against the men’s programs. Tennessee AD Phil Fulmer has a big task ahead of him, as he and most fans never thought at UT there would ever be this kind of discussion involving the women’s basketball program.

– David N. Marks