HOLLY WARLICK stands behind a large mahogany desk, her gray-blue eyes scanning the office in front of her. Autographed photos and lifetime achievement awards dot the walls around her; every imaginable kind of orange Tennessee memorabilia, from Lady Vols Russian nesting dolls to a Pat Summitt bobblehead, fill the massive bookcase at her back. "What am I supposed to do with all this?" Warlick asks to no one in particular. "It's too big; it's too empty. It's just -- it's Pat's."
After 27 years as an assistant coach for the Lady Vols, Warlick always envisioned herself as the heir apparent to the legendary Summitt. Only it wasn't supposed to happen this way. "I'd often joke I would be pushing her out of here to games in her wheelchair," recalls the 54-year-old, her voice perma-hoarse from years of coaching. "Pat and I discussed it in this very room, and I was really, genuinely happy with that." Instead, Summitt's diagnosis of early-onset dementia in 2011 and subsequent retirement at the
It's an intimidating legacy, to put it lightly: eight national championships, 16 SEC titles and 1,098 wins under Summitt. Her teams routinely sold out home games -- a rarity in women's hoops -- and the Lady Vols' facilities and expenses ($5.89 million in 2010-11) rival those of most men's programs. Such accolades were a boon for Summitt on the recruiting trail. But now, without the program's No. 1 recruiting tool, without Coach Pat, Warlick faces an uphill battle to ensure that the University of Tennessee remains a powerhouse going forward. And as the 2012-13 season tips off, the pressure is palpable. The college hoops world will be watching -- every triumph, every stumble -- and asking: Is Warlick coach enough to fill the shoes of the winningest coach in college basketball history?
WARLICK KNOWS FULL WELL what's at stake. She was born and raised in Vols country, the youngest of three kids. A graduate of Bearden High School in Knoxville, Warlick walked on to Summitt's team in 1976 as a freshman. But the blithe, towheaded point guard didn't instantly become a trusted protégé. At the time, Summitt was just 24, only two years into developing the steely on-court presence she's known for today. Her discipline and intensity didn't always mesh with Warlick's fun-loving ways. "Holly was always in the doghouse because she was always having too much fun," says senior associate athletic director Donna Thomas, an undergraduate manager during Warlick's playing days. "Pat was establishing herself, so that didn't really fly. When she ran tough practices back then, we called them 'Holly Days.' " But over the next four years, Warlick proved her commitment both to the program and to Summitt; she went from walk-on to a three-time All-American to the first UT athlete to have her number retired.
Warlick was also one of the few people Summitt confided in about her
For some, that performance also answered a lot of questions about Warlick's ability to lead the team. When Summitt announced a few weeks after the tournament that she was stepping down, some boosters and administrators began pushing for a younger, sexier name; others made a bid for diversity -- maybe an African-American candidate, or possibly a man. Former Tennessee player Nikki Caldwell, who has head coaching experience -- first at UCLA and currently at LSU -- was rumored to be an option. But Hart never seriously considered anyone else. By his estimation, Summitt's shadow would be impossible for any coach to shake, but because Warlick had spent so much time standing next to that shadow, she was
the only one who might actually embrace it. The other person who never considered anyone else? Pat Summitt. According to Pat's son, Tyler, when Hart told her he intended to recommend Warlick for the job, "Mom said, 'Well, obviously. It has to be Holly.' "
"I was relieved and elated," Warlick recalls of finally getting the offer -- a four-year contract with a base salary of $485,000. Warlick's only condition was that Summitt remain close to the program. "I don't care what disease she has," says Warlick, "I intend to pick that brain as long as I can."
But it's not a knowledge gap that poses the biggest challenge to Warlick as head coach; it's making the shift from good-cop assistant to bad-cop coach. In many ways, Warlick's personality is as different from her predecessor's as it was during their first days together in the late '70s. She is wilder (she rides motorcycles in her spare time) and more laid-back. Her previous role was one of friend and confidante, and she thrived at it. "She's always been the players' coach," says assistant coach Kyra Elzy, who played for Summitt and Warlick from 1996 to 2001. "When I was a player, if Holly yelled at you, you had reached a new low. Now she's the one who really has to get after them." It might not be such a stretch, though. After nearly three decades of working side by side, Summitt's intensity and discipline have rubbed off on Warlick. "I know only one way to be out on that court," she says. "I'm not big on too many rules: You miss class, you miss a game. You show up late to practice, you run."
BUT FOR WARLICK to prove she can get after her players, she first must be able to keep the ones she has -- and recruit new ones.
Back in her office, across from the desk, is a large dry erase board that is often covered in stats, phone numbers, names of parents and boyfriends -- every note on every recruit and returning player. That board serves as the recruiting command center for the Lady Vols coaching staff. Any head coaching change is a potential recruiting disaster, but the people of UT are all too aware that Summitt's retirement could be a recruiting apocalypse. Because of her choice not to make any retirement decisions until after the season, Tennessee couldn't tell recruits who their coach would be until this past April. "You want to be as honest with recruits as possible, so you form relationships that aren't superficial," Thomas says. "But we didn't have much to say about the future, and other coaches were using that against us. The day we could actually say Holly was our coach was a step in the right direction."
Recognizing the obstacles her new program faced, Warlick's first move as head coach was to hire two top recruiters -- first Elzy, then Jolette Law after she was let go from Illinois -- to join longtime Summitt assistant coach Dean Lockwood. Elzy was instrumental in building Kentucky's program from a noncontender to an Elite Eight team in 2010 and conference champ last season. Law coached under Rutgers legend C. Vivian Stringer for 12 years before becoming head coach for the Illini. "We didn't know if we'd have a team," Elzy says. Having graduated five senior starters -- three of the top five players in points and minutes -- Warlick's priority was to figure out whether any current players were transferring and whether the incoming freshmen were even coming at all.
Those concerns weren't without merit. "Other coaches called me and asked me to consider changing my mind," freshman point guard Andraya Carter says. So from their command center, Warlick, Lockwood, Elzy and Law drew up lists of potential roster combinations, tore them up, updated them with new commitment information, made calls, paid visits, wrote letters and expected the worst. "Of our four freshmen and six returning players, we felt the odds were that at least two would leave," Warlick says. But no one was budging. "I never considered it," says Carter, who committed as a high school sophomore. "When I found out about Coach Summitt, my dad said something that really stuck with me: 'Either you bleed orange and white or you don't.' " The upperclassmen felt the same way. "This is where I play," says Meighan Simmons, the Vols' top returning scorer at 11.1 points per game. "Coach Holly demands the same respect. She's like Coach Pat but maybe even hungrier."
The long term, however, is not as reassuring. Tennessee managed to keep its commitments for the 2012-13 season, but the yes columns for 2013-14 and beyond aren't even close to full. "I won't sleep until Nov. 14," Elzy says of this year's early signing day. "We keep saying this is our statement class. This is where we prove we can close without Pat Summitt behind the bench."
Looking to the schedule, winter will prove to be a test of far more than Warlick's recruiting abilities. When Tennessee graduated its five seniors, it also lost a lot of its height. So Warlick's Lady Vols will not only have to compensate with their speed and athleticism, they'll have to do it right out of the gate against two of last year's Final Four teams -- Baylor and Stanford --
both on the lineup for December.
(A third Final Four team, Notre Dame, comes to town in January.) "We're going to take our hits," Elzy says in acknowledgment. "But there is an opportunity to surprise people."
Warlick, for one, seems to be ready to tackle her tasks head-on. During her first team meeting, Warlick gave out track-style relay batons to each player. White with orange letters, the tubes read: "New team, new staff, new goals ... Same heart, same pride, same fight." And while the gesture suggests that Warlick intends to share this historic passing of the baton with her team, the responsibility of the program's legacy is largely hers to bear alone. Make no mistake: Boosters, other D1 coaches and a media hungry to render a verdict will scrutinize every loss. If the Lady Vols struggle early, all that scrutiny will be directed at Warlick. But if the pressure is rattling her, she isn't letting it show. "I'm not panicked," she says with a laugh while fidgeting on the couch in her office. "If I'm not ready after 30 years, I'm not going to be ready."
Sarah Turcotte is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @SarahT_ESPN.