Adjusting to life as a head coach

In her first season as head coach, Holly Warlick's Lady Vols were SEC regular-season champs. AP Photo/John Amis

DULUTH, Ga. -- At the SEC tournament, you could tell the orange-clad masses wanted Holly Warlick to hear their response to her name. Whether she did, though, is another story. Considering how little focus she puts on herself, it's unlikely.

Nevertheless, back home at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn., or on the road at places such as The Arena at Gwinnett Center, Tennessee fans seem to have made a point of roaring for their head coach when she's introduced before games. They know what she's up against. Everybody does.

"Not many people want to follow a legend," said assistant coach Kyra Elzy, a former Tennessee player.

But somebody had to do it. Even though it came earlier than anyone wanted or expected, Pat Summitt was going to step aside at some point as Tennessee's head coach. There had to be a replacement.

That's the role Warlick was put into, partially, last season as Summitt finished out her career after getting her diagnosis of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. Warlick gracefully walked a tightrope in 2011-12; acting as head coach in most capacities and yet always reminding people that Summitt was still in charge.

The torch was officially passed in April 2012, though, with Summitt moving to an emeritus role and the program officially going into Warlick's hands.

Now Warlick, who played for Summitt from 1976-80 and then was an assistant at Tennessee from 1985-2012, has the win-loss numbers next to her name.

She's 24-7, having gone 14-2 in the SEC. At home this season, the Lady Vols are also 14-2 -- with the losses coming to Stanford and Notre Dame, both virtually certain to be No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.

"I have been very fortunate to work for Pat for 28 years and play for her as well," Warlick said. "I'm not ever going to compare myself to Pat; there's only one Pat Summitt. I just have been focused on this team getting better.

"Since the start of the season … we've gotten better leadership, and gotten better fundamentally as individuals. And we play hard for the most part. Through the course of the year we've gotten better defensively, and we needed to do that. We've got to be solid on that end of the floor. We're narrowing the gap on our rebounding. I like our energy and how hard we play."

That is totally how Warlick has defined herself: by how her team performs. But what about the personal side to this transition for her? For that, it's more insightful to ask the people around her.

"I don't care who you are, how long you've been at a place or how grounded in a program you are," Tennessee assistant Dean Lockwood said. "That change to head coach is still a big change. It takes time; you don't just automatically flip a switch and say, 'I got this now.' It is an evolution."

With Warlick growing up in Knoxville and then having played and coached at Tennessee, there wasn't anything about the community, the state, the recruiting, the fan base or the tradition that she needed to learn, the way someone from outside the school would have in taking over for Summitt.

Instead, the transition for Warlick was more a psychological one. Always comfortable being the loyal second-in-command to Summitt, she had to assert herself in a very different way as head coach. That couldn't happen without at least some change in her professional personality.

"She's handled the tradition well, but we still tease her that sometimes she still wants to do things assistant coaches do," Elzy said. "She still wants to make all her flights for recruiting and still wants to drive.

"And it's about having to be the 'hammer' with the kids. Now, she is the final voice, instead of being the peacemaker and the pick-me-up, you'll-be-OK person."

It's more complicated, though, than just head coaches and assistants engaging in a good-cop-bad-cop routine with players. Head coaches have multiple responsibilities outside the team, such as with administration, media, fan groups, etc.

"As an assistant, you spend a lot of time getting to know the kids and what they're really like," Elzy said. "As the head coach, you are more relying on the assistants to feed you a lot of that information. So that was different for Holly at the beginning."

Jolette Law was in an assistant's same role for several years at Rutgers before taking over as head coach at Illinois. Back in assistant mode now at Tennessee, Law has a first-hand understanding of Warlick's transition.

"When I stepped into that [head coach's] seat, I had to learn how to trust that everybody was going to do the things I did as an assistant," Law said. "And sometimes, I was afraid to let go. I got burned out because I was trying to do both -- to still be an assistant, too. But as a head coach, you have to start delegating."

Warlick says she has come to accept that. She dealt with the media during Summitt's final season on the bench, so that part wasn't new for Warlick. Still, she had to alter some other things leading into this season.

Kamiko Williams, one of two seniors on the Tennessee roster, said she started to see small changes in Warlick even last year.

"But we had still had Mickie DeMoss then, as well, who had been a head coach," Williams said of the former Tennessee assistant who is now with the WNBA's Indiana Fever. "Now, it's all Holly who is in charge. She's filled the role."

With most of 2012-13 completed, save the NCAA tournament, how has Warlick fared?

That's a bit like saying, other than the past 15 minutes, how was the movie? Many people gauge college basketball success now -- fair or not -- by weighing NCAA tournament results heavily.

But that tournament can be so capricious -- one "off" day by your team, or a red-hot day by your opponent, and you can be bounced. So perhaps it really is a more accurate evaluation of Warlick's move to head coach to look at the question now, before the drama of the NCAA tournament potentially skews a more measured, long-range view.

Warlick took a team that graduated five starters -- including two top-five WNBA draft picks in Shekinna Stricklen and Glory Johnson -- and led it to the SEC regular-season title. She garnered league coach of the year honors, with junior Meighan Simmons being SEC co-player of the year and Bashaara Graves named league freshman of the year.

Asked if this Tennessee team seemed any different from those of the past, Georgia's Andy Landers was cautious with his answer. As a fellow coach, he's sensitive to what Warlick faces in trying to "replace" Summitt.

"What Holly did was incorporate some freshmen and some players who'd played totally different roles a year ago and made them a very, very good basketball team," said Landers, now the dean of SEC women's coaches. "Does it resemble something Pat did? I don't even want to go there. It is what it is; there is no comparison for it.

"Tennessee has always had -- and has today -- extremely talented players. And Holly took what she had and basically rebuilt Tennessee this year into a Southeastern Conference champion."

That league-clinching victory came Feb. 28 at home against Texas A&M.

"It's just a great opportunity to make sure that we carry on the tradition [of what] Coach Summitt has done," Warlick said after that game. "And so it's just a little surreal for me right now."

But a little more than a week later, the Lady Vols lost in the semifinals of the SEC tournament to the Aggies, who went on to take the title. It kept Tennessee from a chance to win an unprecedented fourth consecutive SEC tourney title.

Warlick lamented the Lady Vols' difficulty in getting stops when they really needed them in the closing minutes of the 66-62 loss to Texas A&M.

"We've got to get better on the defensive end," Warlick said. "That's the bottom line. We've got the offensive punch; we've just got to play at the other end of the floor."

But overall, especially with the key injuries and graduation departures that Tennessee dealt with, you really can't label this season as anything but a success.

Admittedly, it had its rough moments. Right off the bat, in fact, with an 80-71 loss at Chattanooga to open the season Nov. 9. And Tennessee's stunning 17-point loss at Missouri on Feb. 3 -- after beating the Tigers by 45 a month earlier in Knoxville -- was a potential confidence-shaker.

Then there were the injuries. Tennessee lost standout freshman point guard Andraya Carter to season-ending shoulder surgery after seven games. Freshman Cierra Burdick suffered a broken hand during a drill in late December and didn't return until late January.

Sophomore post Isabelle Harrison had an ankle injury in December and has had knee problems for much of the remainder of the season. She has played in 21 of Tennessee's 31 games and missed the SEC tournament.

"I think we've had a toughness about us," Warlick said. "I'd still like us to be more disciplined. But it seems this team, after all our losses, they've gone back to work extremely hard.

"They learn from mistakes and missed opportunities. I think they're really resilient. They have a little more togetherness than at the beginning of the year. Now they have that bond with each other because they've had ups and downs."

In a way, the same could be said for the Tennessee staff.

"Having been a head coach previously on a much smaller level," Lockwood said, "I can tell you that you are learning things about yourself all the time. What you need around you, and what you want.

"Holly is now very certain of some things -- whereas early on, it was more like, 'Well, that's important, but there are a lot of important things.' What happens is, you narrow your field. Pat was always about defense and rebounding. Well, for us now, we're also about pushing our offense. I think as time has gone on, Holly has gained greater clarity."

Warlick acknowledged that was true, but she also said a key factor was remembering how much trust Summitt had put in her. Summitt was so comfortable as a leader that she could hand off important duties to her staff and be confident they would handle them. Warlick is trying to do the same thing.

"A lot of head coaches won't let the assistants do as much, but she allows us to," Law said. "And she lets us be ourselves. We've found out where we can best help her."

Warlick was disappointed not to have a chance to play for what would have been Tennessee's 17th SEC tournament title. But she wasn't downbeat about what's still left for Tennessee in her first season at the helm. That includes hosting an NCAA early-round site in Knoxville.

"We're going to bounce back," Warlick said. "I'm confident that our staff will go to work and get them prepared."

And if the assistants need to sometimes still remind Warlick that she's the conductor on this train, they will do that, too.

"We keep pushing her to the forefront, saying, 'It's yours now,'" Elzy said. "After being an assistant for so long, that's been a little difficult for her. But she's handled it well. We tell her, 'You're the boss lady now; you're the big dog.' She knows we're behind her."