By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
A Hollywood screenwriter would have had Holly Warlick coaching the Tennessee Lady Vols to the Final Four in Holly’s first season as head coach replacing the legendary Pat Summitt.
Unfortunately, fifth-seeded Louisville’s story – beating No. 1 seed Baylor in the Oklahoma City Regional semifinals on Sunday and the second-seeded Lady Vols in Tuesday’s championship game – stretched the imagination even further.
But if there’s any solace for Holly after the 86-78 loss to the Cardinals, there’s the fact history says she’s way ahead of schedule in replacing a legend.
Consider the greatest coaching legends in history – Alabama’s Bear Bryant in college football, UCLA’s John Wooden in men’s college basketball and Green Bay’s Vince Lombardi in pro football – and then realize how long it took for those schools and that NFL franchise to win the national championship and the Super Bowl after the legend retired.
Bryant retired after the 1982 season, and three coaches later in 1992, Alabama won a national title under Gene Stallings.
The sixth coach after Wooden retired in 1975 – Jim Harrick – won a national championship 20 years later for UCLA. Lombardi retired from the Packers in 1967, and Green Bay went through six coaches before finally winning another Super Bowl 29 years later under Mike Holmgren.
Let me make this not-so-bold prediction – it’s not going to take Holly 20 years to win a national title. The first reason is Holly, 54, not going to be coaching into her 70s. And the second is based on the Lady Vols’ 27-8 SEC championship season that just ended and on her outstanding incoming recruiting class that includes Mercedes Russell, Gatorade National Player of the Year.
Just after Tuesday’s loss, former Lady Vols’ all-American Chamique Holdsclaw tweeted about Russell, saying, “Lady Vols @LadyVol_Hoops future looks bright. @MerSladezz is on the way #nopressure.”
Tuesday’s loss is the end of the Lady Vols for this season, but it’s just the beginning for Holly.
“We thought we had a good year, but we didn’t have a great year,” Holly said after Tuesday’s loss. “And that's just the nature of our program and our expectations, whether you're Pat Summitt or myself, it's just what we're all about. It's in our blood. It's in our makeup.”
There are few people who have been in Holly’s position, following such a coaching legend of unimaginable proportions like Summitt, owner of eight national championships and an 84.1 winning percentage (1,098-208).
You never want to be the coach following a legend, but the late Gene Bartow was one of those guys who loved a challenge.
He decided to go to UCLA and step into the huge shoes of Wooden. The coach nicknamed “The Wizard of Westwood” unexpectedly retired at the end of the ’75 season after his remarkable run of 10 national championships that included that 21-point victory over the Bartow-coached Tigers in ’73 title game in St. Louis.
Bartow stayed two seasons with the Bruins, going 52-9. He won a pair of Pac 8 championships, losing in the 1976 Final Four semifinals to eventual national champ Indiana and being eliminated in Sweet 16 semis.
“There are some college coaching jobs that are just different than others, like Alabama and Notre Dame football, probably Kentucky basketball,” Bartow told me about a year before he died in January 2012. “UCLA basketball was like that when I replaced John, who was an outstanding teacher of the sport, a fine Christian gentlemen that I was fortunate enough to call my friend.
"I just felt I needed to try it, it was like a small town mayor getting a chance to be governor. If I turned down UCLA, I just wouldn't sleep good. I had some great players (at UCLA), but I didn’t adjust very well to the fans expecting to win every game. When we lost a game at UCLA, it was a catastrophe compared to when we lost at other jobs like Valpo or Memphis, I liked to have fun when I coached, but UCLA wasn’t fun.”
But Holly’s situation, in some ways, is even tougher than what Bartow faced.
First, as great a coach as was Wooden, he didn’t define the growth of his sport as did Summitt. She personally put the woman’s college game on her shoulders and carried it to its place of prominence.
For instance, when Holly led the Lady Vols to the AIAW women’s Final Four as a Lady Vols’ point guard in the 1970s, do you think you could have watched it on TV?
ESPN hopped on board because Summitt pushed the envelope promoting the women’s game. Combine that and the advent of Title IX, and suddenly girls from coast-to-coast wanted to play the sport.
So Holly just wasn’t replacing someone who is mentioned in the same breath as Wooden as the greatest college coaches ever. She was taking over for someone who practically made the sport of women’s basketball what it is today.
“It's difficult to follow a legend, but I just don't let myself go there,” Holly says. “Pat was my coach. She was a mentor for me. Now she's a great friend of mine. So I see Pat in a different light than probably everybody else, which is a great thing for me.
“When I think you're coaching at the University of Tennessee, following Pat Summitt, it blows my mind a little bit. So I don't let myself go there.”
That’s hard not to, because Summitt has been part of Holly’s life ever since Holly was a kid attending Summitt’s camps. "Pat has been absolutely great to her," Fran Warlick told the Knoxville News-Sentinel last April 18 when Holly was named head coach. "I'm sure she's been like another mother to her. She just absolutely idolized Pat. She always has."
There probably wasn’t a more perfect choice to replace Summitt.
Holly, who has lived in Knoxville since age 5, was a three-time all-America point guard from 1976-79 under Summit. But she didn’t take the conventional route to stardom.
Because back in the 1970s Tennessee high schools played six-on-six, Holly, who was a multi-sport star at Knoxville’s Bearden High, didn’t impress Summitt enough to earn a basketball scholarship.
So Holly, a two-time state champion and state record-holder in the 440-yard dash, accepted a track scholarship to Tennessee and walked on to the basketball team in the fall of 1976. She led the Lady Vols to three AIAW Final Fours and joined Summitt’s staff in 1985.
The job that Holly did last season in a delicate situation, with Summitt still very much a part of the program as she began to fight early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, can’t be overlooked. The Lady Vols finished 27-9 (wins credited to Summitt), won the SEC tournament for a 16th time and lost in the NCAA regional final.
Yet it was Summitt who gave Holly comfort after Holly and the Lady Vols lost this season’s opening game to Chattanooga.
“To lose your first game to an in state school, it didn't fare too well with myself and I'm sure with a lot of fans,” Holly says. “They were ready to get rid of me after the first game.
“Quite frankly, I was wondering what did I get myself into, and the first person I saw was Coach Summitt, and she just assured me things would get better, and she told me that she lost her first game, and I thought, `Well, you know, Coach Summitt lost her first game, I'm going to be okay.’
“The worst thing I did was went back to my hotel room and looked at the schedule, our remaining schedule, and I'm like, I just had to turn it over, and I had to just start focusing on Georgia Tech because that was our next opponent. Yeah, it was a little scary. It was a little scary. But we turned it around.”
The one thing that Holly says Summitt taught her was surround herself with good people and let them do their jobs.
“When I got my staff, administration, on down to assistant coaches, I allowed them to do a lot,” Holly says. “That's what Pat afforded me. She let me do a lot of things.
“So I don't feel like it's me, it's all me, and I have to make every decision, because Pat didn't make every decision. She taught me that. So it's a group effort. It's a team effort. That's how I look at it.”
It was Holly’s staff that created the “pass the baton” rallying cry this season.
“We have a new coach, a new staff, so we talked about passing the baton on from Pat's regime and what she has built, the legacy she built, the tradition she built,” Holly says. “There are differences, we understand that. But we have the same heart and the same drive, the same commitment.
“We just wanted Pat to pass the baton on to our players and understand that we represent the University of Tennessee, and what Pat built. We want to make sure we carry on that tradition. There is a new group, a new staff, but we still have the same belief that we're Tennessee, and we're going to represent Tennessee and Pat Summitt to the best of our ability.
“We wanted something to represent what was and what's going to be. Everybody that touched our program, academic advisors, our president, our athletic director, our associate athletic director, everybody that is part of our program got a baton, our administrative assistants, because they're just as much a part of our program as our team and staff.
“We just thought it was important that everybody get aboard. We're not going to be able to survive unless we have this big huge family. The baton is something that we identify with. We know we got to move forward and pass the baton and get our own identity. But we're never going to lose the identity that the Lady Vols have.”
It’s an identity that mixes all-America talent, an exceedingly high graduation rate, class on and off the court and a competitive drive that puts Tennessee in the hunt every year for the national title.
That’s something Summitt established in her amazing 38-year head coaching run, and something that runs in Holly’s blood.
"I still love the game, I’m still emotionally into it,” Holly says.