Warlick era under way in Knoxville

Holly Warlick, an assistant to Pat Summitt for 27 seasons, was part of all eight NCAA titles. Darrell Walker/Icon SMI

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick jokes that in her family, if you didn't want to talk or participate in sports … you might have been tempted to try to find a new family. Her father, Bill, coached youth-league teams in basketball and baseball, and always encouraged her to play.

"Sports were just a part of our family; that's what we discussed and what we did," said Warlick, who officially took over as Tennessee's coach in April after legendary coach Pat Summitt moved into an emeritus position. "If you didn't enjoy sports, the conversation would have been … extremely limited. We were always on the go -- practicing, walking to the ball field, walking back."

If her father wasn't at one of her basketball games, the first question he'd ask her was how many fouls she'd had. Um … and not because he was against fouling.

"He thought if I didn't have at least two fouls, I wasn't aggressive enough or playing hard enough," she said. "So my goal was to get at least two a game."

Warlick was about to start her senior year in high school in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1975. Earlier that year, Summitt had just completed her first season in town coaching women's basketball at Tennessee. Warlick was a prep standout in track and hoops who didn't know all that much about Summitt but at least had a favorable impression. And now there were college scholarships to be had for women athletes -- something that Summitt didn't have when she'd gone to Tennessee-Martin and played ball.

A lot was lining up very well for the teenaged Warlick. Then, out of the blue, her father was gone, dying suddenly of a stomach aneurysm. And some things in Warlick's life changed irrevocably.

"After that, financially, we struggled at points -- and that's part of life lessons, growing up and making things work," said Warlick, the youngest of three children. "My brother and sister had already left home, so it was my mom and myself. Actually, we shared the same room at one point my senior year.

"It made me understand adulthood at a young age -- the responsibilities, managing money. My mom had to work quite a bit. And I realized, 'If you're not going to wash your own clothes, it's not going to get done. If you get a parking ticket, you have to figure out a way to pay for it.'"

Warlick talks about this with the stiff upper-lip borne from years of essentially taking care of whatever she had to, not depending on anyone else, never ever feeling sorry for herself. After all, she says, she has had one of the greatest lives she could imagine, playing and coaching a sport she loves in the hometown she loves.

But then, when you dig just a little deeper, she admits there always has been that one hollow in her heart.

"The only thing I regret is I wish my father had been alive to see my progression," Warlick said. "He was so important in my growth. When you're still developing yourself as a young person, and someone who's been around you all that time is gone, it was difficult.

"I think when it happened, you are too shocked to realize the impact. A few weeks go by and you know, 'He's not coming back.' I had to grow up really quick. But it taught me about life and dealing with what's thrown your way. You have to move on."

Difficult transitions

Maybe that puts what Warlick faces now in another perspective. She has the starring role in a drama about one of the hardest acts to follow in sports history. Except … Warlick isn't a dramatic person. She's a no-maintenance grinder for whom unquestioned loyalty and unflagging diligence were the most important qualities in 27 seasons as the great Summitt's assistant.

Even this past year, with Summitt's activities scaled back as she dealt with early-onset dementia, Warlick always reminded folks who the boss was: same as always. Warlick was the de facto head coach, in charge on the sideline and handling most media duties. But she always deferred to Summitt the way a true-blue second-in-command does.

Now, though, after nearly three decades when she was that never-fail right-hand person, it's Warlick's turn to really, really, really be in charge.

"This last year was a great preparation for me," Warlick said. "I don't want to say it was a yearlong job interview, although I guess it was. I never thought it like that; I just focused on our team.

"Going through last year and doing what we did, it gives me more comfort going into this job. I wasn't the head coach but did a lot that involved being a head coach."

Tennessee made it to the Elite Eight, and after the season-ending loss to eventual champion Baylor, Warlick's gently pragmatic façade on dealing with Summitt's illness cracked a little. She had to fight tears talking about the mentor who'd become a cherished friend now facing her toughest challenge ever.

Warlick never wavered in her support of Summitt while still trying to guide the team -- a tightrope routine that she never made look difficult even if it was.

On the day the transition was officially made last month, Summitt had to tell Warlick that she had to be excited and happy for herself. (That's an order!)

When an assistant steps into the head-coaching role, it's supposed to be one of the best days of that person's career. It's not supposed to have a lingering air of melancholy, the persistent scent of bittersweet. Yet in spite of everyone's best and bravest intentions, it had those things.

That Warlick dealt so gracefully with that shift, too, was another example of how her life had prepared her for dealing with difficult transitions.

Rounding out her staff

As a player at Tennessee from 1976 to '80, Warlick went 118-23 and helped the Lady Vols make three trips to the AIAW Final Four. She was a three-time All-American. Not too shabby for someone who initially walked on the team.

Yes, originally Warlick came to Tennessee on scholarship as a track athlete, specializing in the 400 meters. But basketball proved to be her real forte. After graduating in 1980, she went to Virginia Tech for two years as an assistant, then spent the next two at Nebraska.

In 1985, a position opened up on Summitt's staff at Tennessee, and Warlick went home. It was the perfect fit in many ways. Summitt always had been extra hard on Warlick as a player, knowing she would thrive no matter how tough things were. And as Summitt was still searching for her first national championship, having someone like Warlick on staff was invaluable. She understood Summitt and backed her up, although they weren't identical personalities. They complemented each other -- and continued to do so during 27 seasons and eight NCAA titles.

Other schools over the years would come calling for Warlick, hoping to lure her away to be their head coach. She could never find a reason to leave, though. She worked at a great program for a person she admired endlessly. Where else could it ever be that good?

In recent days, though, she has finally been cleaning out her office -- although not to depart Tennessee, of course. Her first hire since taking over was to bring in former Lady Vols player Kyra Elzy as an assistant. Warlick's office now goes to Elzy.

Which means that Warlick has to go somewhere else in the office space at Thompson-Boling Arena. Typical of her personality, Warlick didn't sound like she was too concerned about exactly where that was.

"I was 14 when I first met her," Elzy said of Warlick, who recruited her out of her home state of Kentucky. "Holly has that point guard mentality: feisty, give it to you in a straightforward way. But yet she's very caring and nurturing. Basically, the sales pitch was, 'Come win a national championship.'

"More than anything, I appreciated when I got there that Holly was a mother figure. She could play so many roles for a team. When I was up-and-down as a player, she kept that steadiness."

Warlick completed her staff Thursday with the announcement that Jolette Law would join Elzy and Dean Lockwood -- who just completed his eighth season with the Lady Vols -- on the Tennessee brain trust.

Law, like Warlick, spent several years as an assistant to her mentor. In Law's case, that was C. Vivian Stringer at Rutgers. Law had played for Stringer at Iowa. Law is coming off five years as head coach at Illinois, where she was let go after a record of 69-93. That experience didn't work out as well as Law hoped, but her ability to recruit was well-proved in her time at Rutgers.

Elzy is also a dynamic recruiter. Without the aura of Summitt in the head coach's role, Warlick knew that her first two hires had to be home runs from the recruiting perspective. Tennessee can't keep being Tennessee without still getting top-shelf talent.

"We lost three players that got drafted in the WNBA," Warlick said of Shekinna Stricklen, Glory Johnson and Vicki Baugh. "Next year, we're going to be young, but our expectations of how hard we work in practice and the things we get done -- that's not going to change. People may not be predicting us to finish as high as usual, but our mentality is we compete for championships.

"One thing I know now is that as a head coach, you have to see the big picture a little bit more than your assistants do. I understand which direction we need to go and how we need to get there. I know the importance of having great assistants to help you."

A different role

That last part might be one of Warlick's bigger challenges: especially since losing her father, she became very self-reliant. Extremely so, in fact.

"It's always been hard to let someone else do something for me," Warlick said. "It really is difficult for me. That's one adjustment I'll have to make -- delegating and letting people do things for me."

Warlick can't be Summitt, of course, because no one can be. But Warlick has been around for the entirety of Tennessee's national championship history. Somebody eventually was going to have to take over for Summitt. No one thought it would be this early, but it is. That can't be changed, and at this point, it can't be grieved over. That's the last thing Summitt would want. That's why she told Warlick to be happy. It's her turn.

Warlick, a motorcycle enthusiast, will soon depart on a bike trip down to LSU, where she'll join former Lady Vols player and assistant Nikki Caldwell -- the Lady Tigers' head coach -- in some charity fundraisers. The two of them formed Champions for a Cause, which has raised money for breast-cancer research. Warlick always did some speaking engagements, but now she'll have a much bigger public persona.

And Elzy hopes people will get to know Warlick the way she does.

"She's hilarious, and people may not realize that who haven't spend a lot of time around her," Elzy said. "Obviously, Pat has been the face of the program for so long. But Holly's been the person right next to her. I think she will implement a lot of the same things that Pat did, but you will see her personality come out more. I think this past year, you saw more of her emerge when that responsibility was on her."

Summitt said many, many times in her career that she had always been motivated by her demanding father, who died in 2005. Summitt felt she could never do enough to please him, and that constantly spurred her on. Because in spite of her frustrations with him at times, Summitt loved her dad.

Warlick had her father a much shorter time, and her memories of him aren't tinged with the fear of never living up to his expectations. To the contrary, she knows she did that -- and then some.

"I wish he'd been able to see me play in college, and how my career has gone in basketball," Warlick said. "My mom is still here, though. She still works two days a week at age 83. She's in the hotel business, and so I think she knows everyone in Knoxville. Everybody who comes up to me says, 'Oh, I've met your mom.'"

Now, even though she has been around Tennessee for decades, people will "meet" Holly Warlick in a different role. The person she has been all along, growing each year, is ready to greet them.