Holly Warlick gets mad when she loses at horseshoes. And when she gathers with friends for games of beach volleyball on Labor Day, "I want to stack my team," she says. That competitive, nothing-but-the-best attitude is one reason Warlick was the right choice for a daunting task -- replacing legendary Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt, who moved into an emeritus role in April, 38 years after she became the Lady Vols' head coach and eight months after she announced that she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.
Another of Warlick's qualifications? The 54-year-old is homegrown -- a Knoxvillean from the age of five, a three-time All-America for the Lady Vols in the late '70s who became the first Tennessee athlete, male or female, to have her jersey retired, and an assistant to Summitt for the last 27 years. "There aren't many people who could walk into this program and be the head coach," says first-year assistant Kyra Elzy, a former Lady Vol guard who graduated with a master's degree in 2001. "It doesn't matter how great your accolades are. The connections, the history, the pressure here is unlike anywhere else. But if you've worked alongside the winningest coach ever for 27 years, you've learned something."
Warlick has absorbed a lot in more than three decades as a Lady Vol, but her driving passion hasn't changed since she was a kid. "I love practice, I love being in the game, I love seeing a kid make a great play," she says as she sits on a couch in her new office in Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena one morning in early October. "I can get excited at the first basket of the game. I am really emotionally into it. That's one difference between Pat and me. If there's a great play, sometimes she can just stand there. I'm pumping my fist -- yes! I still have a little bit of that player in me."
There are other significant differences between Warlick and her famous predecessor. Even after serving as the de facto head coach last year during what Warlick felt was "a year-long job interview," her head coaching record is 0-0, with zero national titles. Summitt's is 1,098-208 with eight championships. And unlike Summitt, who spent most of her adult life as a head coach with a certain authoritarian bent, the friendly and upbeat Warlick has always been the good-cop assistant whose job was to console and support players scorched by Summitt's ire. "Holly is really fun to be around, she cracks us up all the time," says senior guard-forward Taber Spani. "But she has to consider, what does that look like in my role as head coach? She has to take the fun-loving, energetic personality she's molded as an assistant coach and tweak it a little bit."
Although she won't do it the same way Summitt did, Warlick says she has no problem pushing buttons to prod her players. She doesn't have Summitt's famous steely stare, but she does have rules and expectations. Players have already had to get up before dawn a few times to run when they failed to abide by them.
For Warlick, playing bad cop has not, so far, been the hardest transition from assistant to "the boss-lady", as Elzy calls her. "Becoming a head coach, it's like you become a little stupid because you can't drive your car anymore; someone has to go with you, and they drive you," says Warlick. "Going to a speaking engagement, someone goes with you to make sure you get there on time. Well, I didn't have any problem getting there as an assistant! If I say, 'I've got to make my flight reservations,' Kyra will say, 'No! I'm making your flight reservations!' So that's difficult for me, having somebody doing stuff for me. Not having my hands in absolutely everything has probably been my biggest adjustment."
Warlick has been doing things for herself ever since her dad, Bill, a salesman at Owens Corning and a youth coach on the side, died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage in her junior year at Knoxville's Bearden High. His death changed the family's financial circumstances to the extent that Warlick, the youngest of three kids, had to share a room with her mom, Fran, who worked as a hotel clerk, and had to learn to do a lot of things for herself. "We did what we had to do," says Warlick "That's why I say everything I get now is truly a blessing."
Unable to impress Summitt playing the six-on-six game still in vogue in Tennessee high schools in the mid-70s, Warlick, the two-time state champion and state record-holder in the 440, accepted a track scholarship to Tennessee and walked on to the basketball team in the fall of 1976. A point guard with speed, court vision and defensive tenacity -- her 141 steals in the 1978-79 season is still a school record -- Warlick led the Lady Vols to three AIAW Final Fours and helped turn them into a national power.
Her playing career beyond that was brief: Although she was a member of the 1980 Olympic team, she didn't get to play in the Moscow Games because of the U.S. boycott, and her pro career with the Nebraska Wranglers of the WPBL lasted just one year before the league folded, in 1981. After four years as an assistant at Virginia Tech and Nebraska, Warlick joined Summitt's staff in 1985.
The two are still side by side at most practices, Warlick barking instructions, Summitt, now 60, patrolling the sidelines with only occasional commentary. "Pat has a great spirit about her right now," says Warlick. "She has always been a great, kind-hearted person, but a lot of people never saw it because at practice and at games everyone saw her tough side. The players love having her around. I love having her around."
Once the season gets rolling, comparisons between the two coaches are inevitable. "Holly has to have the time to figure out her own philosophy and get her feet on the ground," says former Lady Vol assistant Mickie DeMoss, now an assistant with the WNBA Fever. "It's natural that fans will say, 'Pat wouldn't do it that way,' or 'Pat would do this,' but I think Holly has the temperament of someone who can handle that."
Warlick says she is prepared for whatever the season brings. "I've been in every situation you could be in, and I'm following a great friend who has put me in a position to do what I need to do," she says. "It's a different team, it's a different coach, a different era, but it's still Tennessee. Those foundations were built a long time ago."
One foundation that has remained rock-solid during the transition is recruiting. None of this year's three freshmen who had signed before Summitt stepped down wavered on their commitments, and Warlick already has commitments from three top-50 players in the class of 2013, including Mercedes Russell, a 6-foot-5 center from Springfield, Ore., who is considered the top player in her class.
While the future looks bright, this year's team will start the season with uncharacteristically low expectations, at least from people outside the program. With five senior starters from last year's Elite Eight team gone, Warlick has just 11 players, including eight freshmen and sophomores. The schedule, including a road date with top-ranked Baylor on Dec. 18, is typically brutal. The media has picked Tennessee to finish fourth in the SEC, behind Kentucky, Georgia and Vanderbilt, while the preseason AP rankings have the Lady Vols at No. 20, the lowest spot since 1976-77, Warlick's freshman year.
But Warlick, who calls herself a "glass half-full type," likes this team's speed, athleticism, hunger and attitude. "One thing we haven't had to do in practice is coach effort," she says, sounding very much like her predecessor. "I think we'll surprise people."
Given the chance, Warlick might do the same.