<strong>Holly Warlick has been a familiar site on the Tennessee sidelines as a player or coaching assistant for more than three decades, but last week's 104-44 exhibition victory over Carson-Newman marked the dawn of a new era, as Warlick made her solo debut as the program's first new head coach since 1974. (Photo courtesy Tennessee Media Relations)</strong>
Holly Warlick has been a familiar site on the Tennessee sidelines as a player or coaching assistant for more than three decades, but last week's 104-44 exhibition victory over Carson-Newman marked the dawn of a new era, as Warlick made her solo debut as the program's first new head coach since 1974. (Photo courtesy Tennessee Media Relations)

Warlick era begins in Knoxville -- quietly

Publisher
November 5, 2012 - 10:54pm
Tennessee 104, Carson-Newman 44

KNOXVILLE,  Tenn. -- Last week marked the dawn of a new era in Tennessee women’s basketball: For the first time in 38 years, the Lady Vols took the court under the leadership of a new head coach for Thursday’s exhibition match against Division II’s Carson-Newman, the first game of the 2012-13 season.

There was no pregame fanfare in observation of the launch of the Holly Warlick coaching era, but then again, unlike most “new” head coaches, Warlick needed no introduction to the Tennessee fan base. What little ceremony there was to mark the handover took place last spring when, at a press conference during which Pat Summitt announced her decision to step down as head coach and assume a new role as the team’s head coach emeritus, the legendary coach, in a gracious gesture, passed off her whistle to her former player and long-time understudy.

In many ways, very little seemed to have changed. Fans of all ages still turned out, more than 10,000 strong, bedecked in Tennessee orange and white, to cheer on the home team in what was, after all, still just a preseason exhibition.

The student band still offered up at least a dozen renditions of “Rocky Top.” Cheerleaders built pyramids to entertain a crowd that had no need to be spurred on to “make some noise,” despite the lopsided contest. Smoky and Smoky Junior still cavorted on the sidelines and took to the floor at every break.

And, perhaps most importantly, in terms of the continuity of Tennessee tradition, the Lady Vols, despite the score, were most impressive on defense, and once again prevailed by high double digits – 104-44, to be exact.

Still, this was a moment of historic change, and you would have to have been absolutely clueless not to have noticed the biggest signal of that change: For the first time in nearly four decades, Pat Summitt was not roaming the Tennessee sidelines, her arms folded, her steely blue-eyed stare letting her players know exactly how she felt about every misstep, her gravelly voice filling in the officials with her observations on their calls.

Neither was Summitt on the bench, working in tandem with Warlick as she had throughout last season after her diagnosis of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s Type, was publicly disclosed.

No. For the first time in the memory of most who filled the arena on Thursday, Summitt sat in the stands, alongside the fans. Though Summitt has made it to virtually every team practice this year,  she even skipped the team’s pregame rituals so that Warlick could have the spotlight to herself in her head-coaching debut, another act of class that has been so typical of Summitt.

It was hard to find Summitt in her new digs -- a front-row aisle seat behind the team’s bench -- in the crowded arena. Still, everybody was looking for her.

Summitt seat in Stands
Tennessee Head Coach Emeritus Pat Summitt joined the fans for the national anthem Thursday from her new home at Thompson-Boling Arena -- not on the sidelines where she has reigned for 38 years, but in the stands a row behind the Tennessee bench. (Photo courtesy Tennessee Media Relations)

Opposing coach Mike Mincey was one of those looking for Summitt as he led his team onto the floor of Thompson-Boling arena for what has become an annual early-season ritual for Carson-Newman – a thorough drubbing by the Lady  Vols that serves both as a fundraising vehicle for his program and a way to test his players against the toughest competition they will see all season. “I knew that was going to be odd,” said Mincey of a Summitt-less sideline.

Despite the pounding his squad took, Mincey was glad to have been part of the historic moment. “Actually, what I thought was last year we were the first game for coach Pat Summitt’s last year, and now we’re the first game of the Holly Warlick era.”

Mincey certainly didn’t expect any letdown from the Vols in Summitt’s absence, nor did he get one. “I was really kind of worried because I knew they were going to come out, and they’d want a piece of us, and everybody was going to be cheering for them.” As for comparing this year’s Tennessee squad to last year’s team, who with Summitt still in charge but Warlick sharing game-day duties, hammered his team 105-40, Mincey had this to say: “I think this year I can see, not that they didn't have a fight or a spirit about them last year, but you can kind of see that they want to do well for coach Warlick. I think they have her back. I think you're going to see a lot of good things out of the Lady Vols this year."

And Mincey added his own vote of confidence for the Vols’ new head coach. ”I think she’s stepping into a very difficult situation. I think she’s [doing] a stellar job right now. I know they’re recruiting like crazy. … Getting the No. 1 player in the country is amazing. And I know they’re going to be Lady Vol basketball like it’s always been. She’s been here for 27, 28 years, talking about coach Warlick. I expect nothing but the best from the Lady Vols in the future.”

“How are they going to play for coach Warlick?” Mincey added. “How hard are they going to play? I think they played hard. I think they played well. When you’ve got a 6-2 kid and a 6-3 kid (referring to freshmen Bashaara Graves and Jasmine Jones) who can shoot it from 15 feet and farther, they’re going to be dangerous.”

Tennessee senior Taber Spani was also looking for Summitt, finding the coach who brought her to Tennessee in her new seat in the stands and heading over for a hug in what Spani said she might make a pregame ritual. “It was something I thought about before the game,” said Spani. “This is the first of many things for a lot of us. I wanted to make sure to go over and honor her, and I will probably end up making a tradition of it every game.”

Warlick said she felt no nervousness heading into the game flying solo as head coach for the first time. But she, too, was looking for her mentor, though she couldn’t let her mind linger on Summitt’s absence for long.

"It hit me when she wasn't there for the pregame,” said Warlick. “I walked out and saw her sitting behind the bench. Yeah, it was at first very strange, but then I snapped back to it and got to reality and understand what I'm doing and why I'm here. It was different, but it's Tennessee basketball and what I've been doing and what I've been trained to do. I had a little brief moment and then I had to come back to reality."

Change likely to be gradual, subtle

Despite the historic change of command, few would have expected to see radical differences in coaching style or game strategy at this juncture. For one thing, Warlick’s time at the helm has been short and with an extremely young squad to bring along in her first season as head coach, it would have been insane for Warlick to attempt a wholesale rewrite of the Tennessee playbook, even had she wanted to. In her own words, “We just don’t have a lot in,” said Warlick. So much so, that she kept her squad in a man defense all night, pressing much of the time, but without even attempting a zone defense that would have required more time to work out the kinks with all the new players.

At the same time, Warlick has served what is certainly one of the longest, if not the longest, apprenticeships in the history of women’s basketball coaching. Unlike many new head coaches, she has for years played her part in shaping what has become the Tennessee tradition of success, though it may not bear her name but that of her predecessor. After walking on as a track and field athlete at Tennessee, Warlick earned a basketball scholarship, playing the point under Summitt from 1976-80, where Warlick won recognition as a three-time All-American, and ultimately became the first player at Tennessee to see her jersey (No. 22) retired. Then, after earning her chops in four years as an assistant coach at Virginia Tech (1981-83) and Nebraska (1983-85), Warlick returned to her alma mater, where she has spent the past 27 years working alongside her former coach, at her side for all eight of the team’s national championships.

The significance of the contributions Warlick has already made to the Lady Vols’ legacy have been repeatedly recognized:

  • By the University, which elevated her to the status of associate head coach in the 2005-06 season, later charged her with responsibility for the oversight of in-game coaching strategy while the school, the team, the staff and Summitt herself tried to accommodate her newly discovered disability during the 2011-12 season of transition, and has now entrusted her with the mantle of responsibility for carrying on that legacy as the team’s first new head coach since the implementation of Title IX 40 years ago;
  • By Warlick’s peers, in the WBCA, which honored her as the top assistant coach in the country in 2007 after she helped Summitt guide the team to its seventh national championship, and in the NCAA, which named her one of Division I’s top assistant coaches as early as 1998; and
  • By five different basketball and sports Halls of Fame which have inducted her into their memberships, including most prominently the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame’s class of 2001. Indeed, in what in some ways must be the ultimate reversal of roles, Summitt joined her former player and coaching understudy in one of those honor rolls this weekend, when she led a class of four new inductees into the Tennessee Lady Volunteer Hall of Fame in a private ceremony in Knoxville. Athletes are eligible for induction 10 years after graduation, and Warlick was inducted, as a former player, in 2004. Administrators are typically required to wait five years from their last service to the university before becoming eligible, but the Hall’s selection committee and board voted to waive that requirement in Summitt’s case, making her immediately eligible for induction. Joining Summitt in this year’s class of inductees were three former athletes -- Tennessee basketball great Michelle Marciniak, track and field star Jane Haist, and golfer Young-A Yang.

"Take the baton and let's go"

Given her history with the program, even in this new Warlick era as head coach, Warlick will likely continue to be cast more in a role of perpetuating a legacy she helped to build than of establishing a radically different one of her own. Indeed, Warlick tried to convey that sense of continuity in the team’s core values and philosophy to her team in a simple ritual this August.

Warlick brought a white baton to a team meeting and passed it around to each player.  According to an Athletics Department spokesperson, the baton bore the inscriptions:

  • "TENNESSEE LADY VOLS Tradition … All we are doing is passing the baton.”
  • “NEW TEAM, NEW STAFF, NEW GOALS … SAME HEART, SAME PRIDE, SAME FIGHT.”
  • “TAKE THE BATON AND LET’S GO!!”

Still, for Warlick, who is nothing if not loyal, serving as an assistant coach would by necessity have required, to a measure, subordinating at least some of her own priorities to those of her head coach. Now, she acknowledges, her opportunity to place her own stamp on Lady Vols’ tradition and philosophy has begun. Just expect the changes to be subtle -– more shifts of emphasis and matters of personal style than major differences in approach –- at least for the time being.

Some of those subtle differences were already in evidence during the Carson-Newman game, for those who were looking carefully. Just for one, Summitt’s hard-eyed stare (some might have called it “glare”) might be gone from the sidelines, but Warlick has replaced it with a two-fingered wolf whistle she uses to capture the attention of her players on the floor as she walks the sidelines. On first look, the two techniques seem to serve much the same purpose with equal effect.

Warlick Wolf Whistle The changes Warlick will make are likely to come gradually, many will be subtle, and some will be matters more of style than substance, like the two-fingered wolf whistle she uses, instead of the famous Summitt stare, to catch the attention of players in need of correction on the floor. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

On a deeper level, Summitt was widely known for her emphasis on identifying specific goals for her team, with concrete rewards for achieving them and equally specific consequences for falling short. Over the years, she came to involve her players more in the goal-setting process, but it was well known that if a team goal was, for example, to reduce the number of turnovers, their progress in that department would be regularly measured in both games and practices, with players rewarded with end-of-practice shooting drills if they improved or penalized by running wind sprints if they didn’t.

There’s some evidence that, at least in the early going, Warlick might have a somewhat more relaxed approach in such matters. For instance, asked what goals she had set for her players over the summer, Warlick replied: “Goals? My goal was for them to get in the gym and play the game. Work on what they felt like they needed to work on, get shots up, stay in condition. I didn't have specific goals for them but I wanted to make sure that they worked on their weaknesses and got shots up.”

It also looks like Warlick may place a somewhat greater emphasis on players enjoying the process –- and the game of basketball –- while improving. Continuing her answer about goals for summer improvement, Warlick added, “I wanted them to play pickup, I didn't want them to just go get in the gym and shoot. I wanted to try and simulate some game-like opportunities for them in the summer."

Though there’s definitely the usual attention to business on the bench come game-time, there also seems to be a somewhat lighter atmosphere at times, at least when the Vols are winning by 60. Former Iowa Hawkeye standout -– and Harlem Globetrotter -– Jolette Law, one of Warlick’s new additions to the coaching staff, added some moments of levity during the Carson-Newman exhibition rout. For example, after taking a teaching moment with one of the freshmen as she came off the court, Law, who appeared in M.C. Hammer’s music video for “Too Legit to Quit,” then let the newcomer know “it’s all OK,” playfully smacking her on the butt and high-fiving those in the vicinity.

Simple coaching  philosophy: defense and hard work

Summitt had a crisply defined coaching philosophy, encapsulated in her “Definite Dozen” – sort of a women’s counterpart to John Wooden’s famous “Pyramid of Success.” In contrast, Warlick’s own philosophy at this point boils down to just two simple themes: “Play defense” and “Work hard,” two concepts she views as inextricably interwoven.

Asked in an exclusive interview with Full Court what identity she hopes to establish for the Vols’ now that she’s taken the helm, Warlick repeatedly emphasized the basic principle of hard work: “I want our identity to be that we play hard all the time, that when you go against a team from Tennessee, you know it’s gonna be a battle, it’s gonna be a blood bath, and it’s gonna take a lot of your energy … to compete. So that’s my biggest thing: I want us to compete on every possession. I want us to play as hard as we can. I know we’re gonna turn the ball over. I know we’re not gonna make every shot. But if our effort’s there –- if our effort is there -– that’s what I want our identity to be.”

Effort will in turn lead to the ability to maintain a high-pressure defense and a high-tempo game, in Warlick’s view. But she sees hard work as the foundation for that style. “Now I love the defense. I love the up-tempo.  I love that kind of game. But that requires a lot of energy and being in great shape. So if we can get that, if we can get in great shape and maintain our energy, then great things will happen. “

In her first postgame press conference as a head coach, Warlick returned, time and again, to the mantra of hard work, dissecting her areas of pleasure and displeasure based largely on her perception of the level of effort her players were expending. “I thought tonight at times we would miss a shot, and it would affect our defense,” she summarized at one point. “That is something I am trying to get away from. I’m trying to get us to understand that we will make mistakes but we’ve got to get back and play defense. As long as they play hard and give the effort –- which I think this group does for the most part –- I’m going to be pleased.”

At another point, asked for three concrete things she was happy about and three that she wanted to work on in light of what she’d seen on the floor that night, Warlick again emphasized effort, above all else (except perhaps winning): “Three things that I was happy with are that we won the basketball game, number one. Two, everybody got a lot of playing time and I was pleased with that. I thought for the most part we played hard. For the things that I was concerned about was that we didn't play hard all the time. Pleased with what we did, but what we didn't do was play hard all the time, way too many fouls, entirely too many fouls and we gave up 12 offensive rebounds, they had 32 rebounds. We can get better on the boards, we can get better defending and obviously we can play out of our mistakes and play hard all the time."

Even when evaluating the performance of an individual player, freshman post Bashaara Graves who marked her college debut with a double-double of 17 points and 15 boards, Warlick returned, once again, to the theme of hard work: "Bashaara had a double-double. Fifteen rebounds and 17 points. I thought at the beginning of the game she was pressing and a little nervous. But Bashaara plays hard, and you have to have some kind of effort if you have 15 rebounds.”

That simple message of working hard seems to be getting through to the players, both veterans and newcomers alike. For example, shooting guard Meighan Simmons, who put up a game-high 24 points while grabbing five boards and passing out five assists, immediately turned to effort in evaluating her own performance: “For me, I should have given a lot more tonight,” she told reporters after the game. “In the first half I didn’t shoot as well, and I was a little more patient with my shots in the second half.” (The latter was certainly true, with Simmons improving to 50-percent shooting from the field (eight-of-16) and 40 percent from the arc (two-of-five) by game’s end thanks to much better shot selection in the second half.)

Simmons Soars Tennessee's Meighan Simmons soars over Carson-Newman's Shyra Brown on the way to two of her game-high 24 points in coach Holly Warlick's first game as head coach. Simmons seems to have bought in fully to Warlick's emphasis on hard work and defense and calls her new head coach "amazing." (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

Likewise, Spani emphasized effort in sizing up the team’s performance on the night. “I would say it was inconsistent. I think our effort level was there at times and wasn’t there at others. I take full responsibility for that,” said the senior wing, who posted 11 points and grabbed four boards and two steals, but coughed the ball up three times in Thursday’s outing. “Effort is something you can give no matter what. You can give effort and play hard no matter how talented you are. We still have a long way to go.”

Of course, working hard and playing defense aren’t exactly startling new ideas – either among basketball coaches as a group or for the Lady Vols, who have always lived and died by their defense.  Indeed, “Make hard work your passion,” was item six in Summitt’s “Definite Dozen.” No doubt, Warlick has much more to teach her charges than hard work and defense. It really boils down to a matter of emphasis. And even Summitt has admitted to local Knoxville papers that “I wasn’t even sure what my philosophy, my style would be,” when she first took the helm in 1974 at the ripe old age of 22.

So perhaps, someday, we’ll be blessed with coach Holly Warlick’s “Fantastic 44” principles for basketball success. But, for now, at least, Warlick is keeping things simple: Work hard, play defense, and you’ll make her happy. Don’t and … Well, that remains to be seen.

Cleaving to these simple, yet all-important themes, may have a lot to do with why some of the veteran players, Simmons among them, find relatively little difference now that Warlick is in charge. Simmons has been there through all three coaching “eras” at Tennessee, arriving as a freshman when Summitt was unquestionably in charge, soldiering through last year’s period of transition when at times, it might not have been altogether clear exactly who was in charge of what, and now the dawn of the Warlick era at Tennessee.

“I feel like the coaching styles are the same, … and I say that with confidence in Holly, because she has, you know, been around Pat for 28 years and she knows the game of basketball,” Simmons, a junior on a roster that fields just two seniors, told Full Court. “She knows what Pat’s philosophies are. She knows what Pat’s expectations are. So I feel like it’s the same thing. You know, she doesn’t have that growl, or, you know, that face that Pat has, but she has that intensity of Pat Summitt. And I feel like that, with Pat setting that foundation for her and for Holly to step upon, I feel that that ‘s something, you know, that Holly just comes into it, you know, because she’s used to it.”

Spani, one of the two seniors, sees some differences, but to her, that’s not necessarily a negative. “Of course, it's going to be different,” she said. “Different is not necessarily a bad thing; it's just different. This is the first time we have ever had to go through something like this, but I thought Holly did a great job…. Pat is still pulling for us too no matter where she is at, so it helps that we know that."

Buy-in already achieved

One thing is clear, and that is that while the road ahead will have its challenges for Warlick, she has already surmounted one of the biggest possible obstacles –- she has won the support of her players. She has buy-in, and they have her back.

“We all believe in her 110 percent,” said Spani.

“I really feel like, you know, she’s an amazing coach,” offered Simmons, who said she would describe her new head coach as “passionate, determined, and committed.”

“’Cause she is -– everything,” Simmons continued. “She’s passionate about making us better. She’s committed to making sure that we’re doing the right thing out there and making sure that we’re being the best team that we can be, and … she’s determined to make sure that, you know, we become better people outside of the floor, … outside of basketball. She wants us to be better people off the court as well.”

Interestingly, those are exactly the standards Warlick has for herself as she begins this new chapter in her coaching career.

“I want to be a great leader for them,” said Warlick of the Vols. “Always. I want to be a great leader.

“I want to be a great teacher.  I want to be able for them to teach the game. I want them to go on the court, and know the game, and be able to react. Not respond. I want them to react and be able to know the game whether they’re a point guard or a post. I want them to know the entire game.

“And I want to be a mentor for them. I want to make sure that I’m doing the right things to make sure that they can follow something that they understand all aspects of … just everything –- on the court, all aspects of life. So as long as I can teach and coach them and they get better on and off the court, then I’ve done my job.”

The gift of youth

Looking to the future, one of Warlick’s greatest challenges -- the youth of the Tennessee roster -- also offers her a unique opportunity to place her own stamp upon the program. As previously noted, Tennessee is led on the court by just two seniors –- Spani and guard Kamiko Williams, and Simmons, the lone junior. Everyone else either arrived after it became clear that Summitt’s days were numbered (i.e., the team’s four sophomores, Cierra Burdick, Isabelle Harrison, Ariel Massengale, and Jasmine Phillips, the last of whom, a JUCO All-American, is actually a new arrival this season via transfer) and stayed anyway, or else came after Summitt stepped down and Warlick took over (the four freshmen, including Graves, Andraya Carter, Jasmine Jones and Nia Moore).

On the one hand, that youth has left Warlick, in some senses, starting out already behind the eight-ball, launching her regime with Tennessee’s lowest preseason ranking -- No. 20/16 –- since Warlick herself arrived as a freshman in 1976.

But for those who understand the ranking more as a referendum on the experience-level of the players than on the abilities of their coach, the lower-than-accustomed ranking relieves some of the pressure. The lower ranking could give Warlick the chance to over-deliver what the pundits expect in her first season. And in any event, talented as these newcomers are – and much as the perceived diss might be working to build a fire in players like Simmons who take it as a challenge to “step up and fight for one another and for what we wear on our chests” -- it would be unrealistic to expect a squad this young to contend for the national title this season, as Summitt herself learned to her chagrin in 2009 when her “Baby Vols” made their infamous early exit in Round One of the NCAA Tournament.

The predominance of freshmen and sophomores who either signed on or stayed on after Summitt’s departure also limits the likelihood of resentment by veterans who might feel they wound up with the proverbial pig in a poke, signing up for a collegiate career under the legendary Pat Summitt only to spend their days coached by her understudy. It also removes at least part of the temptation for Warlick herself to do the one thing that would almost certainly derail her success as the program’s new head coach: i.e., try to become a Pat Summitt clone. For one thing, such an effort would be inevitably doomed to failure. As with the departure of any iconic figure, there are undoubtedly some fans in the stands who will never fully accept anyone but Summitt as the team’s on-court or spiritual leader, comparing any replacement unfavorably with her predecessor. But those would also be among the first to detect -– and reject –- any effort to pass off Warlick as a Pat Summitt-lite.

Graves Shoots Bashaara Graves, one of four talented freshmen on the Tennessee roster, skies for two of her 17 points and 15 boards in her collegiate debut. Graves, whose hard work on the court brought approval from Warlick, considered, briefly, withdrawing her commitment after Summitt stepped down, but stuck with the Lady Vols because of a "Tennessee tradition" that is bigger than any coach. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

Second, while it’s one thing for Warlick to recognize and emulate all she has learned from her mentor, turning herself into mini-Pat would deprive her players of the opportunity to learn and grow with the benefit of all Warlick herself has to offer in her own right as a player, coach and person.

So far, said Warlick, the response from her players, new and old alike, has been “a good [one]. I think when you have five new kids coming in, they haven’t seen me as an assistant. They’ve seen me as a head coach now.  So the majority of our team are  freshmen and sophomores. And I don’t think anybody’s had any problem with the transition. I think last year was -– once they understood Pat’s situation and as the season progressed, they understood what I was gonna do and my position -– I think that’s helped them into the transition. I really do.”

Answering the recruiting question

In addition to winning buy-in from the team itself, Warlick has also gone a long way toward removing one of the other major question marks that hovered over Knoxville after Summitt disclosed her disability and ultimately stepped down: Recruiting. How would the loss of one of the game’s legends affect Tennessee’s ability to get and keep top talent?

As an assistant, Warlick was known as one of women’s college basketball’s great recruiters, and after being named head coach, she brought in two new members of the coaching staff -– Law and Tennessee alum Kyra Elzy –- to fill the roles previously served by Warlick herself, as well as Mickie DeMoss, while keeping on nine-year assistant coaching veteran Dean Lockwood. Both Law, who established a reputation for recruiting as an assistant to C. Vivian Stringer at Rutgers and went on to sign the No. 3 recruiting class in the country in her first year as head coach of the Fighting Illini, and Elzy, who spent the past four years as an assistant at Kentucky, where she served as recruiting coordinator, share Warlick’s own reputation as top-notch recruiters.

Their selection was no accident. As Warlick told Full Court: “I’m gonna tell you, it’s all about players. I mean, you can be an average coach and still win games. But you’ve gotta have players. I mean, any coach’ll tell you: You’ve gotta have players.

“And recruiting’s a huge part of our success and one of the reasons I went out and hired and got Jolette and Kyra is that they’re great recruiters. Not only are they great recruiters, they’re great coaches and they’re great teachers for these young women. So I think I hit a home run with those two.”

That may be the reason why, to the surprise of some pundits, Tennessee hasn’t lost much on the recruiting front since Summitt stepped down and Warlick took over. True, highly-sought-after high school senior Kaela Davis, a 6-2 wing out of Buford, Georgia, whose brother A.J. has committed to the Tennessee men’s team for next year, withdrew her verbal commitment to Tennessee, and just this week announced a new verbal to Georgia Tech. No question, Warlick, who made an effort to bring Davis back to the fold, visiting Davis after becoming head coach and hosting the talented high schooler for an official visit to Knoxville last month, would have liked to have had her back. But Davis’ actual decommitment took place during the uncertainty of last February when the program was still in transition, leaving prospects (and their parents) to wonder how long Summitt would remain, what shape she would be in when they or their kids arrived on campus, and who would ultimately take over.

More recently, though, Warlick and the Vols got an enormous shot in the arm when they landed Mercedes Russell, the consensus top player in the class of 2013, who chose the Vols over nearby rival Louisville. And highly regarded Jannah Tucker, who has been impressive in her appearances for USA Basketball’s development teams over the summer, has re-engaged with Tennessee after withdrawing her own verbal commitment at the behest of her father.

Warlick laughs when Russell’s name comes up, and when asked how it makes her feel about the future of the program, she smiles as she answers, in a Tennessee twang even deeper than Summitt’s, “Well, I feel great!” The signing has been a huge feather in Warlick’s cap, a ratification of sorts of her new staff selections, as well as evidence that the Tennessee tradition of success is likely to prove bigger than the iconic coach who built it.

The Tennessee tradition and the belief that it will outlive Summitt -– that’s what ultimately convinced freshman Graves to maintain her commitment to the Lady Vols after Summitt revealed her condition and ultimately stepped down.

“I think I paused for a bit, but it wasn’t, it wasn’t a big pause at all,” Graves told Full Court. “It was just, reassuring myself if I wanted to come here. And I definitely knew, I was -– I wasn’t supposed to go anywhere else. See that’s why I’m here. I didn’t fit any other colors but orange and white.”

Asked the three most important reasons she opted to stay, for Graves, it ultimately boiled down to one: “Tradition,” she stated. “The tradition is probably the main part why I still came here.”

And if Graves’ assessment –- like that of her teammates –- is correct, it’s that Tennessee tradition that will outlive the Summitt era and guide the Warlick era into creating its own legacy of success.


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