A cloud of sadness hung over the 2012 women's NCAA tournament regional in Des Moines, Iowa. No one said it, but everyone knew it was likely the last time Tennessee coach Pat Summitt would be on the sidelines. She had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, the previous year. She was still the head coach, but many of the duties were being filled by her longtime assistant Holly Warlick, who was trying to keep her own grief at bay while running the program.
Tennessee lost the regional final to Baylor, and Warlick handled news conference duties as she had all season. Her voice broke but she held off tears talking about Summitt, how this was still her program, how Pat was still the boss. Warlick said she was just taking care of some things for her.
It was the epitome of loyalty, devotion, selflessness and courage. Those are four things we should keep in mind as Tennessee moves on from Warlick, who was relieved of her head coaching duties Wednesday. We hope that even one of those traits is attached to our names; Warlick has all of them.
After the Lady Vols fell to UCLA on Saturday, their third early-round NCAA tournament exit in a row, Wednesday's news wasn't a surprise. Tennessee has eight NCAA titles and a huge fan base. Restlessness has grown in recent seasons, as Tennessee seemed to regress while fellow SEC programs South Carolina and Mississippi State rose to the top of the league, made the Final Four, and -- in the Gamecocks' case -- won a national championship. Both are still playing in this year's tournament.
Tennessee had made the Elite Eight as recently as 2016. But the Lady Vols expect more. Ironically, it's a credit to what Summitt built -- a women's sports program that so many people passionately care about -- that there was such heat on Warlick.
What she did in seven seasons as head coach would be more than good enough at many schools. But the behemoth that Warlick has been part of both as a player and then a coach for more than four decades was, in the end, what crushed her. Good enough is not good enough at Tennessee.
Yet goodness abounds from Warlick. For a long time, she was good cop to Summitt's bad cop in dealing with players who needed discipline. Summitt was worshipped; she could be hard on players while still earning their love. She wasn't afraid of being disliked or players being mad at her. She could lay down the law and be as tough as she had to be, but still rest easy. That was her personality.
What came naturally for Summitt was harder for Warlick. She spent so many years being a buffer when needed and a softer landing spot for kids who experienced bumps along the way toward making peace with Summitt's demands and earning her respect. Warlick knew how they felt; Summitt had been her coach, too, after all.
Knoxville is Warlick's hometown, and Summitt was only six years older than her. Realistically, she probably thought she'd be an assistant through the end of her career. She likely never expected to replace Summitt.
But Summitt's illness changed that. When she took over the program, Warlick had to become a different kind of leader while in the midst of not just program upheaval but athletic department upheaval as well. Tennessee merged its men's and women's athletic departments, and it wasn't bloodless. Longtime employees were let go, including some devoted to the Lady Vols.
Then-athletic director Dave Hart pushed for Summitt's move to a coaching emeritus job in the spring of 2012. He seemed to have no real appreciation for the Lady Vol brand, and was a target of lawsuits filed by some former employees claiming gender discrimination.
Warlick was caught in the middle: trying to do her job, respect her athletic director and deal with others' anger and disappointment. All while losing a best friend and mentor to a nightmarish disease that crushingly took Summitt away day by day.
Yet Warlick handled it with grace. She kept her sense of humor. She tried to maintain the same standards and never let anger or frustration bubble over, no matter how harsh the criticism.
But it had to take some toll on her, and ultimately the program. Tennessee was the titan of the SEC for so long, and Lady Vols fans rarely had to experience the kind of disappointments most programs did. Then those things started to happen to Tennessee. Mississippi State, for example, had lost 36 straight to Tennessee, and the Lady Vols' first loss to Mississippi State was a major shock.
Three decades of service to the University of Tennessee. A Lady Vol for life.— Lady Vol Basketball (@LadyVol_Hoops) March 28, 2019
Thank you, Holly. pic.twitter.com/qt3bRBhqeW
During John Currie's brief time as Tennessee athletic director in 2017, he explored at least the possibility of needing to replace Warlick. It never got to that because he was fired after a disastrous attempt at hiring a new football coach. Phillip Fulmer took over as AD, and could have made the decision to part ways with Warlick after Tennessee's NCAA second-round loss at home last year. Instead, he extended her contract in August.
But then Tennessee lost six games in a row this season. The Lady Vols seemed to sort of right the ship, but things went south again. They hit near-rock bottom when Tennessee hideously lost at home to Vanderbilt -- the SEC's worst team this season -- for the first time in program history.
Tennessee still salvaged an NCAA tournament at-large bid, keeping its streak alive as the only team to make the field every year. But the first-round loss, which was followed by sophomore guard Evina Westbrook suggesting to media that a staff change was needed, spelled the end for Warlick.
Was it fair? It might not feel like it. But it had to happen. A program with the tradition, success and fan engagement of Tennessee couldn't afford to keep going the wrong direction. The rest of women's basketball isn't going to slow down; Tennessee has to catch back up.
There is immediate pressure now on whomever follows Warlick, and little margin for error. Those who still support her are upset this happened, and those who were ready for a change wanted that last year or earlier. But all of Orange Nation will be united in demanding results. The new coach also has to be accountable to the former Lady Vols players themselves, a tight-knit and involved women's basketball alumni group.
But one thing the next coach won't have to do is be Summitt's immediate successor. Following legends is not for the faint of heart, but Warlick took on that huge burden and carried it as best she could.
For many in women's basketball, Tennessee fans and otherwise, Warlick's firing brought back memories of Summitt. It perhaps feels to some as if her last strong tie to the program is severed with Warlick no longer on the sidelines.
But what has been constructed for decades at Tennessee is still powerful. It's a brand name in college athletics that means something special. It's a community that stretches far beyond Knoxville.
Warlick gave this program all she had. Everyone -- especially whomever is next to guide the Lady Vols -- should be grateful to her for that.