Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Same heart, same pride, same fight

HOLLY WARLICK stands behind a large mahogany desk, her gray-blue eyes scanning the office in front of her. Autographed photos and lifetime achievement awards dot the walls around her; every imaginable kind of orange Tennessee memorabilia, from Lady Vols Russian nesting dolls to a Pat Summitt bobblehead, fill the massive bookcase at her back. "What am I supposed to do with all this?" Warlick asks to no one in particular. "It's too big; it's too empty. It's just -- it's Pat's."

After 27 years as an assistant coach for the Lady Vols, Warlick always envisioned herself as the heir apparent to the legendary Summitt. Only it wasn't supposed to happen this way. "I'd often joke I would be pushing her out of here to games in her wheelchair," recalls the 54-year-old, her voice perma-hoarse from years of coaching. "Pat and I discussed it in this very room, and I was really, genuinely happy with that." Instead, Summitt's diagnosis of early-onset dementia in 2011 and subsequent retirement at the end of last season destroyed any dreams of a celebratory passing of the torch. Now, premature or not, the future of Tennessee women's basketball rests squarely on Warlick's shoulders.

It's an intimidating legacy, to put it lightly: eight national championships, 16 SEC titles and 1,098 wins under Summitt. Her teams routinely sold out home games -- a rarity in women's hoops -- and the Lady Vols' facilities and expenses ($5.89 million in 2010-11) rival those of most men's programs. Such accolades were a boon for Summitt on the recruiting trail. But now, without the program's No. 1 recruiting tool, without Coach Pat, Warlick faces an uphill battle to ensure that the University of Tennessee remains a powerhouse going forward. And as the 2012-13 season tips off, the pressure is palpable. The college hoops world will be watching -- every triumph, every stumble -- and asking: Is Warlick coach enough to fill the shoes of the winningest coach in college basketball history?

Read the rest of the story by Sarah Turcotte.

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