Hazel Head, the mother of former longtime Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, has died. She was 93. This was the headline I read as I was typing up this piece. Sad and timely, the death of Coach Summitt’s mother represents another lost piece of the great legacy left by one of the greatest coaches in women’s basketball and college sports.
Excluding book authors, acquaintances, colleagues and players, there are very few names outside of Pat Summitt’s family who are still left on the list who knew her so intimately in ways that even her memoirs could not capture. Among those, is current Tennessee Lady Vols, head coach, Holly Warlick.
On October 25, 2012 Coach Holly Warlick attended the SEC press conference for the first time without Pat Summitt. I hunted down that press conference on Youtube and instantly recalled feeling my heart break back then for Tennessee Women’s Basketball. The women’s basketball nation was already grieving even though Coach Summitt had not even passed on. Her absence from the press podium affected women’s basketball in ways that many coach’s presence never could. While I was deeply saddened for the Lady Vols I was even more shattered for Coach Warlick. Not because she was alone at the podium that day, but because even I could feel the massive weight of expectation descending upon her shoulders. Losing Pat was bigger than just naming a new coach, it was a shot across the bow that the basketball world was about to be issued a pair of empty shoes that no one was capable of filling.
Take a moment and just imagine you are Holly Warlick in 2012. You are preparing to lose your mentor, coach, and friend of 28 years and when you look into the camera on SEC conference media day, you force yourself to hold back from the emotion associated with it because your players, your staff and university are losing their hero and they need you. Now remember, not only are you expected to maintain a face of strength while sitting front row watching the sun set on the time of one of the greatest coaches in the game, but the fans of UT and the future of the program will be at your door in no time rendering your development timeline irrelevant.
Following Coach Summitt’s death, the passing of the torch to Coach Warlick was fitting, nostalgic and there was no better way to keep UT and its women’s basketball base eagerly turning the pages of the Lady Vols book to generate hope for the future.
Holly Warlick is not Pat Summitt.
I do not know her personally, but I suspect she would likely be the first person to tell you that she has never claimed to be Pat. Every person who has been touched by the UT women’s basketball legacy will forever have a piece of its history of something special. Coach Summitt’s legacy was beyond special yet, we are lucky enough to still have the honor of having her closest and most immediate predecessor coaching in the game. Regardless of history and attachment to the legacy, there is a portion of the basketball world who continues to throw stones at Warlick and I have had just about enough of it.
“Regardless of history and attachment to the legacy, there remains a portion of the basketball world who continues to throw stones at Warlick and I have had just about enough of it.”
I have been watching, waiting and hoping other coaches in the basketball community would step in and stick up for one of their own, but I’m done waiting.
I’ve watched over the years as UT fans have eagerly anticipated the return of the Summitt magic where the Lady Vols are back on top. In all of the anticipation, many have still not realized one thing: The Summitt magic isn’t coming back because the ingredient was Pat and she is gone. The expectation is not only foolish, but it’s robbing the current UT players and their coaches of a solid chance to build out their own legacy and run with it.
While many are questioning the direction of Warlick’s reign as head coach, the public needs to ask itself if it has truly ever permitted her tenure to grow legs of its own. With the cloud of Coach Summitt forever hanging over the Lady Vols arena, the language and social media rage of orange-blooded fans of UT and critics reveals that they are still not prepared or willing to explore the new era without looking back and referring to “what used to be”.
Despite Coach Warlick’s players testifying on camera or in print week after week that they follow and respect their coach, this appears to mean so little to her critics and those who have never coached a sport in their life still refuse to read between the lines on the bigger lessons embedded in the words of her players.
Sophomore Rennia Davis “Players come here from winning programs, and it’s typical for people to put their head down. We’ve been trying to keep each other up. There are a lot of games we know we could have won, should have won, but we have to be able to put 40 minutes together and sustain leads in this league.”
This quote isn’t a quote from a student-athlete blaming their coach for a loss or putting down her teammates. This an honest player who is able to self-reflect after a loss and is actively taking ownership. This behavior is not born by achieving an undefeated record, it’s a trait inspired by great leadership and this player’s leader is Holly Warlick.
UT Women’s basketball graduation rate continues to be one of the best while their (995) APR in 2018 posted their team as the second best multi-year score at UT in 6 years.
So how does this justify UT not being in the Top 5 after 7 years under Coach Warlick? It doesn’t. However, the evidence we do have is that Warlick’s athletes are working hard, they believe in their mission, they respect and support their coach while representing the university with first class behavior and are crushing it in the classroom. All this and more, yet these facts still weren’t enough to keep College Basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli from publicly posing a question during a non-UT women’s basketball game broadcast after a mention of a UT loss.
“I think we need to ask; Has Holly Warlick lost her locker room?”
“This question made my blood boil because as a fellow female college coach in that moment, Holly Warlick is not just the coach of UT, she is all of us.”
When you are a female coach you know exactly what it feels like during a tough year or tough recruiting cycle when everyone on the outside tells you to give it time. Deep down even those within your closest support system have no idea about the clocks you are running against or what it feels like when all you want to do is build culture, character and strive for stronger players in body and mind. Meanwhile, in the background you can hear nothing but repetitive whispers of your administrators, parents, donors and alums who measure success solely by the “W”.
Holly Warlick is every woman in coaching who does not have the rich history of UT behind her. She is every female coach who just keeps pushing through regardless of whether the people who are supposed to support her do or do not. Coach Warlick and the scrutiny she is under is a no-win situation that all of us have felt as women in coaching.
Receiving great reviews from your athletes, but not quite having a winning season? You can resign or be fired. Receiving poor reviews from your athletes and having a winning season? You can resign or be fired. Vocalizing disagreement with inequity or treatment? Your department can find a way to force you to resign or have you fired.
While Antonelli felt compelled to insert herself into publicly questioning the worth and value of Warlick to UT women’s basketball, I sincerely hope this is the start of her and many other public basketball figures calling out the men of college women’s basketball and treating them with the same scrutiny that our women coaches receive. For example:
Ohio State had a banner year in women’s basketball in 2017-18. With one of the top players in the country in Kelsey Mitchell, she took her place as the Buckeyes all-time leading scorer.
Following OSU’s signing of Mitchell, the 5’8 point guard’s dad, Mark Mitchell, was added to the staff as an assistant by Head Coach Kevin McGuff. Coach Mitchell had no more than high school basketball experience on his resume. The moment his daughter graduated, Mitchell resigned.
Mark Mitchell’s four year OSU assistant career included a suspension after he was cited for “conduct detrimental to the team”. McGuff’s crew at Ohio State is currently 7-9 on the 2018-2019 season with 5 out of 11 players being 5th year grad students where 4 of those 5 are transfers. He has the experience and the age but he’s less than .500. Not only can McGuff not hold a candle to Warlick on ethical compass but what he is not doing to help the game has managed to keep a nice low profile.
The actual practice of men in women’s college basketball hiring other men who are far less qualified than many in the female candidate pool who just need a break, is astonishing so save your lecture on Warlick’s win-loss percentage. Where were women’s basketball figure heads when it came time for on-air questions over the ethics and hiring practices of male coaches like Kevin McGuff? That’s right, crickets.
Oregon women’s basketball coach Kelly Graves received a two-game suspension in 2018 and earned his own university probation status until 2020. Don’t feel too bad though. Graves was permitted to choose which two games he would be suspended for. While the Oregon suspension was reported to have been based on infractions that were self-reported, across the US over at East Carolina University, Coach Heather Macy was forced to resign mid-season in October of 2018 after she self-reported practice hours violations. Macy was ECU’s most winning coach in the program’s history.
The double standard is astounding, but as for Coach Warlick, she leads a young team of predominantly sophomores and freshmen with a huge legacy to carry on their shoulders before they even put their sneakers on. Say what you will about UT’s record under Warlick but you will not find the Lady Vols populating the Knoxville police blotters, nor her staff racking up NCAA violations. Coach Warlick leads quality, buttoned-up coaches, her players speak positively of her and clearly they make the grades yet, this stops no one from calling for her head for not being Pat. Until commentators like Antonelli feel the inspiration to spark debate and dialogue on the true tough topics in men coaching women’s basketball…back up off Holly Warlick, now.
“Until commentators like Antonelli feel the inspiration to spark debate and dialogue on the true tough topics in men coaching women’s basketball…back up off Holly Warlick, now.”
I am certain Coach Summitt is watching over the women’s game from the stands in the sky but, I can only imagine what she is saying knowing that the world of women’s basketball is shredding one of her last predecessors based solely on measures that never even ranked the most valuable in her own book.
To the critics of Warlick in the sports community I will say this: If you love the game and want more for it, redirect your target sights away from coaches like Holly Warlick and use your energy and time to call out a real problem which is the stark contrast in how the public and media addresses the successes and failures of our female coaches compared to their male colleagues.
Be Fearless, Coach Warlick. You are all of us.
Bio: Becky Carlson has been in NCAA college coaching (USA) for more than a decade and is passionate about not only Women’s NCAA Rugby, but is also an advocate for the health and welfare of our coaching population. As a public speaker, equality advocate and coach, Becky has grown tired of the abundance of resources for sport specific technical skill building and sitting at endless seminars only to be left with no solutions on how to survive in the profession of coaching with this generation.
Becky believes our athletes are losing their ability to communicate with each other and therefore, with us, the coaches. Becky is interested in connecting and assisting other coaches who are challenged daily through this profession with today’s generation. Did you enjoy this article? Let’s discuss! Please hit like, comment or tweet @TFCoachCarlson with #BEFEARLESS. To contact me visit thefearlesscoach.org