KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee coach Holly Warlick remains upbeat amid an extraordinarily difficult year.
Pat Summitt, her predecessor and mentor, died in June after battling early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. That followed a trying season in which Tennessee had a school-record 14 losses but surged down the stretch to reach an NCAA Tournament regional final.
The upcoming season hasn’t started, yet Warlick’s team already is down to nine healthy scholarship players. Athletic director Dave Hart, who hired her to replace Summitt, just announced his pending retirement.
No wonder she’s so eager to turn the page with a new school year.
“Nobody’s going to feel sorry for myself or this program,” Warlick said. “I just have to keep focusing on what I need to do to get better and the positive part of this team. Personally, yeah, it was difficult. It was extremely difficult.”
The toughest part came with the death of Summitt, who led the Lady Volunteers to eight national titles and 1,098 victories. Warlick played for Summitt and worked as an assistant coach on her staff for 27 seasons before taking over the program in 2012. Warlick said the sudden nature of Summitt’s death was “a little bit of a shock to me.”
“I’d just seen her two weeks before and was going out for her birthday and (was told) she was asleep,” Warlick said, “I said, ‘Don’t wake her up. I’ll see her next week.’ And the next week led to, ‘You need to get over here. Pat’s not doing well and may not make it through the night.’”
Warlick savored all the opportunities to talk basketball with Summitt, who remained on staff as head coach emeritus. Warlick said Summitt’s declining health prevented them from having in-depth conversations about the game, but they could still talk about general things such as whether the team needed to play harder or rebound better.
“Just having that presence there and knowing she watched the game, those things were important to me,” Warlick said.
Warlick said Tennessee’s current players gained a new appreciation for Summitt from the tributes that poured in after her death. Now they want to honor her by building on the momentum established during their surprising postseason run.
That will require correcting the problems that arose during a 22-14 season. Warlick has raved about the team’s offseason approach and particularly noted the leadership of senior guard Jordan Reynolds.
“At times we didn’t lead by example last year,” Warlick said. “Sometimes we’d get a little consumed about ourselves. It doesn’t have that feel right now. It doesn’t have that feel of, ‘I’m worried about me.’ It’s (about) trying to get this team in the right direction. It’s a great feeling right now.”
The Lady Vols will need that kind of effort to overcome their lack of depth.
Te’a Cooper, the team’s fourth-leading scorer as a freshman last year, will miss the entire 2016-17 season with a knee injury. Andraya Carter, who made 82 career starts, is forgoing her final season of eligibility due to a series of injuries. Warlick said the absence of those two guards could require Tennessee to play zone more frequently and to press less often.
The uncertainty surrounding Tennessee’s athletic department makes this an intriguing season for Warlick, who has led the Lady Vols to regional finals in three of her four years on the job.
Hart announced on Thursday he was stepping down June 30. Warlick had no head coaching experience when Hart chose her to run the program in 2012, but was the program’s longtime assistant. Warlick noted his efforts in getting a statue of Summitt built on campus, planning locker-room improvements for the Lady Vols and aiding the athletic department’s switch to Nike as its main apparel provider.
“When your athletic director leaves, I think all of us — coaches, administrators, anybody here — should be concerned,” Warlick said. “Dave’s the one that went out on a limb and hired me. I’m appreciative of that.”
Warlick is responding to this latest challenge the same way she’s faced every other obstacle.
“It’s all about your attitude,” Warlick said. “I see the glass as half full.”