What will the image of the Lady Vols be now?
Marky Billson, Tri-Cities based sports talk show host
Does Jeff Walz, reportedly the front runner to become the next head coach of the Tennessee women?s basketball team, have a ?stare??
Is that the prerequisite for being the head women?s basketball coach at Tennessee?
Because Tennessee fans kept pointing to Holly Warlick?s lack of a stare of discontent, a la Pat Summitt, as for the reason she wasn?t a good head coach.
Heaven help whoever the next head coach of the Lady Vols is if she or he can?t make a face like Alyssa Milano at the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.
And so we get to the real reason Warlick is no longer the head coach of the Lady Vols.
She wasn?t Pat Summitt.
Never mind the accomplishments of the Lady Vols, or lack thereof, were the same as what Summitt achieved during the last four years of her head coaching career. Never mind Summitt?s success predominantly came in an era when Tennessee would have opposition from the likes of Old Dominion and Louisiana Tech instead of Notre Dame and South Carolina. Never mind Connecticut passed Tennessee as the premier brand in women?s college basketball during Summitt?s tenure. Never mind Warlick was Summitt?s right hand woman for more than a generation as an assistant coach. Never mind Warlick was such a legend on the hardwood she had her number retired before her playing career with the Lady Vols was over.
Never mind the image of professionalism and high graduation rates never went down under Warlick. Never mind her teams never failed to make the NCAA Tournament. Never mind she worked with a contract that was demonstratively less attractive than her peers; making approximately a third of what Geno Auriemma does and ending three years before Dawn Staley?s does.
Holly Warlick?s winning percentage at Tennessee was .720. She was an assistant coach on all of the Lady Vols? eight national championships.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of Warlick is she agreed to such a deal.
A coach with four years remaining on their contract has job security and the image they?ll be staying. A coach with fewer than four years on her deal has Evina Westbrook greasing her skids.
So why didn?t Tennessee back their women?s basketball program more? Slighting the coach with such a contract is a sign of Tennessee investing less in the program than their peers, and Warlick?s entire coaching and playing career, if not loyalty to the Lady Vols, definitely deserved more from the administration.
The sad thing about the Warlick era is her accomplishments as a player and coach were not recognized more during her head coaching tenure. The coach Warlick helped establish as her first star was now forever casting a shadow that doomed her protg.
It wasn?t about the Lady Vols winning games anymore. Warlick did that.
It was about chasing a ghost. Few mentioned at the time by not immediately giving the reigns to Warlick after Summitt was diagnosed with Alzheimer?s was akin to not giving a loyal assistant a recommendation.
And if they did, they were shouted down.
Does that end now? For without Warlick, the Summitt era at Tennessee is officially over.
Now the question is if the era of Lady Vols class ends, too. The Tennessee women?s basketball team has always presented itself in the most professional manner. Players are pictured wearing dresses. When Anastasia Hayes was kicked off the team last summer (which had a strong impact on the Lady Vols? inability to win 20 games this season), it was for a violation of team rules, not an arrest.
Lady Vols star Kamera Harris
The program is unapologetically pro-female. They were ahead of the curve on Title IX.
At Penn State, then-women?s basketball head coach and women?s basketball pioneer Rene Portland famously once said in 2000 lesbians would not be welcome on her team. The Lady Lions have never returned to the Final Four.
At Tennessee, the biggest star in the history of the program, Chamique Holdsclaw, is a lesbian and she led the Lady Vols to an undefeated national championship season.
In 2014, Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post wrote, in the words of Tamika Catchings, ?Tennessee taught a brand of ?womanhood.??
Because no matter what their record was on the court, the Lady Vols were always a testament to female empowerment.
Will that continue? What will it mean if a male begins the post-Summitt era? And what will it mean if a male coach is given a superior contract to Warlick?s deal, which would seem almost a definite.
What big name coach is going to come to Tennessee for less than $700K a season or less than five years on a deal?
One thing is for certain. If a male is hired to become the next head coach, it is unlikely he will be criticized for not staring enough.
Nobody coaches forever. One can argue since the Lady Vols have become a program about chasing ghosts, a change was needed.
But spare us any more ?Vol For Life? propaganda. Warlick is one. The women?s basketball team has never won a national title without her on the staff, and she continued the Summitt legacy of class and made it her own.
And for this, Warlick was in to a position to fail.
In many ways, so is athletic director Phil Fulmer. If he brings in Walz or other big name coach, Fulmer will have to give more security and pay than he did Warlick. And that would be a slap in the face of all the Lady Vols stand for and the legacy Summitt created.
If he brings in a coach like Buffalo?s Felisha Legette-Jack or former Lady Vols point guard Kellie Harper of Missouri State, he can pay them what he paid Warlick, but it will look like he?s cutting corners with the women?s basketball program and bring back memories of his ?the reason why I?m here is to help fix football? quote of last year.
As the author of the Walz story linked to above, Gene Henley of the Chattanooga Times-Free Press, said on my radio show yesterday, ?Tennessee fans do not like Holly. Lady Vols fans like Holly.?
Tennessee fans got their wish. The risk is now what we know the Lady Vols to be stands to be no more.
Marky Billson hosts a sports talk show in the Tri-Cities, TN area from 12?2 p.m. ET weekdays. Watch it live or archived here.