Saving The Lady Vols

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Throughout the eternity of my sports-conscious life, I was always aware of two conjoined facts: women’s basketball at the University of Tennessee, and Pat Summitt was women’s basketball at UT. The whole of the Lady Vols designation for UT athletes was based on the model of who Coach Summitt was herself. Pat Summitt embodied everything about being a Lady Vol. She was tough, unflinching, and strong. She faced every obstacle with steely-eyed grace and always found a way to destroy it in her own way, her own time.

We all know that Pat Summitt was truly defeated only once in her life, when Alzheimer’s took her at such a young age. If not for that, Summitt would have been uncatchable as the best coach of all time because she would have continued to coach–and win–for years. Tennessee would have won more championships. The Lady Vols would have grown their legacy as the greatest women’s basketball program in the NCAA.

But, it wasn’t meant to be. Every great warrior, every superhero ultimately learns that they, too, share the fate of us normal human beings.

As we sit here, mid-season of the 2018-19 schedule, we are facing a unique situation that no other university has ever been confronted with. Oh sure–some elements of that situation are ones every program’s faced. Our legendary women’s basketball program is currently setting records for things that could have never happened on Pat Summitt’s watch–most losses, most consecutive losses in a row, etc and etc–and the writing for the program is on the wall. As a result, we now must replace only the second head coach in the program’s NCAA history (coaches prior to Summitt were AIAWA and records are scanty back to the creation of the program in 1903) and conducting our first search for who that coach is going to be. Holly Warlick succeeded Summitt as the pre-ordained head coach in waiting. This time, there’s no chosen successor. This time, for the first time, Tennessee will presumably join the annual coaching hunt.

Yes, as unfortunate as it may be, it’s time.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve watched some UT fans dismiss the importance of the Lady Vols to this university, blathering that no one cares or should care about a non-revenue producing secondary sport blah blah blah. There’s no easier way to demonstrate your ignorance than to make such a comment about Tennessee’s women’s basketball program. If you don’t watch women’s basketball, that’s fine. Don’t participate in the conversation then, and keep your opinions to yourself. Let the grown-ups who do watch the Lady Vols talk while you run off to YouTube and watch football games from the 1990s for the rest of the day.

Just as Summitt created the Lady Vols program and legacy, she also created women’s basketball as an NCAA sport. She bridged the gap between the idiotic six-player, half-court game that women played while she was in high school and college to the high-flying, fast-paced, heading to the pros sport of today. No other school in history can lay claim to that kind of landmark. As a result, UT is more conscious of its women’s basketball program than almost any other school. Sure…some UConn fan will question everything I just said, but if they know anything about the sport at all, then they know their arguments are lies. Without Pat, there’s no Geno…there’s no Tara.

There’s no women’s basketball as we know it without Pat Summitt.

Holly Warlick has had ample opportunity to prove herself as only the second head coach of the Lady Vols. She took over in 2012, when Dave Hart allegedly forced Pat Summitt to retire from the university. So Warlick has spent almost seven years now as the coach who stepped into the shoes of a legend. She played for UT starting in 1976, came back as an assistant in 1985, was announced as the associate head coach in 2005 and held that role until Summitt’s retirement. Now we find ourselves here, in 2019, facing a second consecutive year where the memory of Coach Summitt’s glory days seem like fiction instead of thirty years’ worth of facts.

And we have to hire a new coach for the Lady Vols.

Replacing a legend is basically impossible. Who coached right after Knute Rockne? Bill Walsh? Bear Bryant?

Which one of those coaches replacing a legendary coach did better than his predecessor?

Heir to the King–or Queen–coach of any sport is probably the most thankless job opportunity ever.

Warlick served as a buffer between the departure of Pat Summit and the decision Tennessee faces today. It’s undeniable that Warlick has had at least some success as a head coach while at Tennessee. The past couple of years, however, the decline in the program has been marked and unchecked. This is all uncharted territory for the Lady Vols. So how does UT move forward?

No one can really argue that Warlick’s time to go is upon us. Because of her extraordinary devotion to UT over the span of the last four decades, this head coaching change should be conducted graciously and with real gratitude for everything Warlick has done for this program–which is a lot. Holly Warlick embodies the term “Vol For Life” because that’s exactly what she’s been. If you’re incapable of recognizing that then you should go hang out with the people who don’t think women’s basketball at UT isn’t that big of a deal.

Phillip Fulmer knows Warlick’s devotion and I’m sure he relates to it too. He’d been just as loyal. The crass way Fulmer was forced out after three decades of fidelity to Tennessee is absolutely not the path Fulmer should or likely will take now as director of athletics. Warlick should finish out the year as the head coach for the Lady Vols and while she’s concluding her swan song season, he should be initiating a quiet, low-key, and thorough search for the coach who might just fill Pat Summitt’s shoes.

The new coach won’t be just any coach, either.

Whoever lands the job will almost certainly have Tennessee ties either as an alumnus or a former staff member. Seeing as Summitt’s teams saw every single player leave UT with a degree, there’s an extensive laundry list of her former players/current coaches that might fit the bill. And make no mistake: the Pat Summitt coaching tree is massive, with former players and coaches all over the country who know in the depths of their souls what being the Lady Vols’ head coach entails. Fulmer should go to that list first because he knows how imperative those Volunteers ties really are.

But then, he’ll narrow the choices down and back the Brinks truck up to nab the coach he thinks is the best fit for the culture, for the school, and for the legacy that the Lady Vols have created here on Rocky Top. Some of these coaches won’t feel up to the challenge of wearing the Summitt mantle. That’s understandable. Standing on the shoulders of giants is an intimidating thing, especially when every home game is played on the court that bears Pat Summitt’s name.

But some brave souls will be willing to accept that challenge. This program needs a coach who’s strong enough to withstand both the intimidation of the Summitt name and the expectations of the fan base. Dollars to doughnuts, that coach will come from the Summitt coaching tree.

Vol Nation is not known for its patience. But with January rolling to an end, National Signing Day approaching for a suddenly red-hot football staff, and the number one men’s basketball team gearing up both for the SEC title and the NCAA Tourney, Fulmer’s already got a lot on his plate. So this hire probably won’t be a quick hire, and the fan base should be prepared for that.

But this hire also needs to be conducted with a complete and thorough understanding of what the requirements are in order to succeed both at Tennessee and in this faster, more aggressive style of women’s basketball that’s developing in the NCAA.

There’s no easy way to watch a program fall from the heights as our Lady Vols basketball team has. It’s so difficult to believe that in seven years, Tennessee went from Pat Summitt to getting beaten by Arkansas at home. Now it’s time to transition from the Holly Warlick era to a new one and find someone to welcome into the most legendary women’s basketball office in any school’s athletic department. Obviously, that coach needs to understand what it means to represent the legacy of this school and its basketball program.

But, that coach also needs to understand what it takes to win in this new era of women’s basketball, in a game that’s changed dramatically in the past ten years. We are fortunate that the man in the athletic director’s chair is who he is. If anyone knows what to look for in a coach that embodies what Pat Summitt stood for, it’s Phillip Fulmer.

It’s time to start looking, Coach.