KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – This year’s Tennessee women’s basketball team has been challenged with upholding Pat Summitt’s legacy without her.
Summitt made the program the standard bearer for women’s college basketball, but she stepped aside in April after announcing last year she has early-onset dementia.
The program has been turned over to new coach Holly Warlick, an assistant to Summitt for 27 years.
“We definitely want to keep passing the torch for years to come,” sophomore center Isabelle Harrison said. “It’s something that we’ve embraced. We’re not running away from it. When we’re into practice, when we’re [lifting] weights, whatever we’re doing, we know what we need to do just having Tennessee across our chest.”
Summitt left the Vols with 1,098 victories and eight national titles in 38 seasons. She remains on staff as head coach emeritus, attends nearly every practice and is expected to be in the stands for all of Tennessee’s home games.
Still, things will be different around Knoxville.
“It will not be the same,” Georgia coach Andy Landers said. “I don’t care how hard people try to make it the same or how much people want it to the same. It won’t be the same. That’s not to say it won’t be good. It’ll just be different just because Tennessee’s success for the last 36, 37 years has been built around Pat Summitt – and that won’t be the case as we go forward.”
Tennessee opens the season Friday at Chattanooga and though the Vols are ranked 20th, it’s the school’s lowest position in the Top 25 since February 1985. They have nobody who started an NCAA tournament game during their run to a regional final last season.
“I think a bunch of people are crossing us off the map,” sophomore forward Cierra Burdick said. “That just kind of fires me up because Pat has worked so hard to get Tennessee at the top of women’s basketball. I want to help her legacy and now Holly’s legacy (to) continue to stay at the top.
“I wouldn’t want it to slowly fall off and fall off year by year.”
That’s the challenge facing Warlick. During SEC media day last month, she was asked whether she had the worst job in America.
“I was taken aback,” Warlick said. “If you could poll a lot of coaches, they’d love to be in my shoes. I think it’s the best job in the country. It’s the best job in the country for me.”
Indeed, Warlick is uniquely suited for the position.
A Knoxville native, she played for Summit and was the first Tennessee athlete to have her jersey retired. Warlick knows the history of the program about as well as anyone.
“This is where I have always wanted to be,” Warlick said. “I have never said I am too scared to do this (or) I don’t want to do this. I love the challenge and I love the opportunity to be here. It is in my blood. It is all I know.
“I think the country and women’s basketball would be shocked if I didn’t have on orange and white. ... It is just who I am and what I think I was chosen to do.”
During an August team meeting, Warlick handed each member of the team a white baton to show them what this season means. The batons included the message: “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!”
And the message isn’t just coming from Warlick.
“We have former players come in it seems like every week,” Burdick said. “They huddle up in the circle with us before practice and they give us their little spiel and words of encouragement and tell us every single time, ‘Do not rest on tradition. Continue to build it. What has come before you is great, but we want to see great things to come in the future.’ That is our responsibility at the University of Tennessee, to continue on with this legacy.”
That starts by making the Lady Vols championship contenders again. Tennessee hasn’t reached the Final Four since its 2008 national title, its longest absence since the NCAA started running the women’s tournament in 1982.
To turn that around starts with players.
Warlick’s staff has shown it can recruit. Warlick added former Iowa head coach Jolette Law and former Kentucky recruiting coordinator Kyra Elzy to her staff. Elzy played at Tennessee from 1996-2001 and was part of two national championship teams.
Although freshman center Nia Moore and Louisburg (N.C.) College transfer Jasmine Phillips are the only Lady Vols who joined the team after the coaching change, Warlick secured a verbal commitment last week from Springfield (Ore.) High post player Mercedes Russell. She is rated the nation’s No. 1 senior prospect by ESPN’s HoopGurlz recruiting service.
Warlick also is introducing an uptempo style in an attempt to capitalize on the Lady Vols’ strengths. Tennessee will face a size disadvantage against some opponents, but the Lady Vols believe they can run with anyone.
“It’s what we’ve got to do if we want to win, point blank, period,” sophomore guard Ariel Massengale said.
Amid all the changes, the one constant for the Lady Vols is the commitment to making sure Tennessee remains one of the nation’s premier programs. They believe they owe that to Summitt.
“I still think it’s a program that has great tradition, and it’s going to continue the tradition,” Warlick said. “We’re just going to build on it.”
AP Sports Writer Charles Odum of Athens, Ga., contributed to this report.