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Column: Holly Warlick out of position for Lady Vols program

No one asks her to be Pat; they simply ask to not lose 10+ games in a season.

Holly Warlick has been a big part of the Tennessee Lady Vol basketball program for more than 35 years.

She was a three-time All American as a player for Pat Summitt from 1976-1980 and a crucial staff member under the Vol legend for 27 years before taking over as head coach when Summitt stepped down to devote more time and attention to her health.

Warlick had big shoes to fill. She knew it, too, but wanted it that way. Her 30-plus years on Rocky Top weren’t solely because she was employed — she wants to be in Knoxville. When she said the she and the Lady Vols “will work as hard as we possibly can with the goal of hanging more banners in Thompson-Boling Arena,” she meant it.

The epitome of Warlick’s character came in a The Player’s Tribune piece nearly two weeks ago. That piece defines her love for both Summitt and the program, and she loves being a mentor to every player that comes through Knoxville and dons orange and white.

“I want to make a difference in these kids’ lives — because that’s what Pat made in mine.”

That last line — her exact words — is motivated by a genuine love for the Lady Vol basketball program.

She seemed like the perfect person to step in and take over head coaching duties in 2012. Warlick was the Lady Vols’ best assistant and Summitt’s go-to partner. She was good at her job and as invested in the program as anyone but Summitt herself.

However, those head-coaching duties held high expectations. Fans wanted to see the yearly conference championships and deep runs in the NCAA Tournament. Expectations separated Warlick as a head coach from Warlick as a treasured member of the Lady Vol culture.

As a head coach, Warlick isn’t elite enough for one of the sport’s most elite programs.

It’s not Holly Warlick’s fault that she isn’t Pat Summitt, because no one can be Pat Summitt 2.0. A more reasonable expectation would be for Warlick to continue the legacy of the program Summitt started by consistently contending for championships and Final Fours. However, it’s deteriorating by the season.

Under Summitt, the Lady Vols never went more than four years without an appearance in a national championship game. In five years under Warlick, the Vols have yet to go to a Final Four.

Under Summitt, the Lady Vols only missed out on the regular season conference title or the conference tournament championship three times. Warlick’s teams have done it in back-to-back years.

Some of that can be attributed to the growing competitiveness of the SEC. Mississippi State and South Carolina have grown into the conference’s division powers, but the Lady Vols aren’t even in the conversation anymore. The conference may be improving, but Tennessee is losing to teams it shouldn’t lose to.

The Lady Vols lost to Ole Miss on Jan. 12 for the first loss against the Rebels since 1996.

Then, they lost to Georgia on Feb. 5 for just the fourth time in the past 23 years.

Finally, an SEC Tournament loss to Alabama marked the third loss in a row against the Crimson Tide — a team Tennessee had beaten 42 times in a row, until last season.

The Lady Vols notched top-10 wins against Stanford, Notre Dame and South Carolina this year, but lost in their opening game of the SEC Tournament and lost for the first time (ever) in the Round of 32 against Louisville.

Tennessee’s loaded rosters have yet to make a Final Four under Warlick. Teams around Tennessee are getting better, but the Lady Vols aren’t keeping up. If anything, they’ve fallen behind. The early SEC Tournament exits aren’t what the Lady Vol program is expected to do.

There was no way Warlick was going to mirror the success that Pat Summitt had. Only one other women’s basketball coach has hit that level of success (Geno Auriemma), and he’s won 111 games in a row at UConn. However, the Lady Vols program is, historically, a top-two women’s basketball program.

With Pat Summitt at the helm, Tennessee lost 18 conferences games from 1997-2012. Under Holly Warlick, the Lady Vols have lost 14 conference games in the past two seasons alone.

Tennessee shouldn’t lose in the Round of 32. Good teams make the tournament and lose in the Round of 32, but there are a lot of good teams. Elite teams make the Final Four. Under Summitt, Tennessee’s teams were consistently elite.

Under Holly Warlick, Tennessee’s teams have fallen short. She belongs in the program, but she’s misplaced as the head coach. Tennessee deserves better.

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