From whistle to baton

The whistle Pat Summitt handed Holly Warlick is now draped around a bobblehead of the legendary coach behind the desk of her successor. Go inside with Inside Tennessee for an interview with the first-year head coach of the Lady Vols.

Holly Warlick ushered a writer into her office Thursday morning with a smile, offered a beverage just as Pat Summitt would do and settled onto the couch as if she had nothing else to do at that moment, just as Summitt always did.

The reality is that the new head coach of Tennessee is covered up with obligations, especially at this time of year with school just beginning and the players all back on campus. But Warlick, just as her mentor did, sat down for a 30-minute interview and devoted her attention to that task.

The first thing Warlick had to do this summer is move from her smaller office down the hall to Summitt's larger one. That was difficult for the former Lady Vol who played for Summitt and coached beside her for 27 years.

"It was hard for me to move in here," Warlick said. "It was Pat's office. I would have just stayed in my office over there where I was, but I needed to move.

"I always put things in perspective that I am carrying on a tradition for Pat as well as the university."

The office is spacious with a large-screen TV, whiteboard, conference table, couches, large desk and bookshelves. The walls contain the presence of Summitt from photos with Warlick – including the whistle exchange – to magazines on the coffee table with Summitt on the cover.

Listening to Warlick can be like listening to Summitt. Her first answer to a question was to praise her staff.

When asked about a track baton on her desk – the staff and players all have one in a tangible example of the coaching change – she deflected praise and credited Assistant Coach Kyra Elzy and Michael Beaumont, her director of basketball operations, with the idea of another symbolic and tangible gesture.

"I hired a great staff," Warlick said.

The baton is covered in words that can be read by rotating it. The words are: "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."

"Everybody gets one," Warlick said. "It is a new start for us, but we are never going to lose sight of what Pat has done for this program and what tradition we have built here with all the players.

"Have the heart and the will to do it and fight for it. We are going to battle."

Warlick was the associate head coach for Summitt and then had to assume some of Summitt's duties last season while the head coach mounted a public battle with early onset dementia. Summitt stepped into the head coach emeritus role last April at a press conference to announce her retirement and the ascendance of Warlick to the top spot.

Warlick was in head coach mode the next morning.

"I left at 5:30 and got on the UT plane and went to recruit," Warlick said. "I've hit the ground running since. We were everywhere."

During that April press conference, Summitt placed her whistle around the neck of Warlick in a symbolic and powerful gesture about succession. Warlick doesn't intend to use it at practice. Instead, the whistle hangs behind her desk draped around the neck of a Summitt bobblehead doll on a bookshelf.

Warlick spent the month of July on the recruiting trail and fielded two remarks from other coaches at every stop.

"People came up and said, ‘Congratulations, I'm glad you got the job, and how is Pat doing,' " Warlick said.

It's a reminder of the everlasting presence of Summitt on the program. The display case in front of the office holds eight national championship trophies, the most of any NCAA basketball coach. Summitt also holds the NCAA mark for careers wins at 1,098.

Following Summitt is akin to replacing Bear Bryant and Dean Smith. Warlick, a native Knoxvillian and lifelong Tennessean – minus two coaching stops in the 1980s in the states of Virginia and Nebraska – was the perfect choice because of her devotion to Summitt, who will be around for practices and games as much as she chooses to be. Warlick will welcome her presence, whereas a new coach without her extensive ties to Tennessee could have found it unnerving.

Summitt also left one of her signature schedules for Warlick. Three of the first four games are on the road, including the raucous environment of the Roundhouse in Chattanooga – where last year's seniors nearly lost as freshmen but prevailed on an Alicia Manning trey from the corner – and then opening Georgia Tech's new arena in Atlanta.

Tennessee will play three of the Final Four teams with Stanford, Notre Dame and Baylor. There is also an early season road trip to Miami and the return of North Carolina to the schedule. The SEC is always stiff – league play opens on the road at South Carolina – and has been strengthened with the addition of Texas A&M, the 2011 national champion. The Aggies will be the opponent for Senior Night.

"Crazy," Warlick said with a laugh. "We're going to be young, but it is what it is. I looked at it once. I can't look at it anymore. I've got to take it one game at a time."

Tennessee has two seniors in Kamiko Williams and Taber Spani, who both are returning from injury. Williams missed half of the season to recover from ACL surgery, and Spani was hobbled for most of it after a fluke knee injury last November during the Virginia game. The Lady Vols have one junior in Meighan Simmons. That is it for the upperclassmen.

The sophomore class added one player in Jasmine Phillips, a juco transfer from Hartsville, S.C. She joins second-year players Ariel Massengale, Cierra Burdick and Isabelle Harrison.

The freshman class grew to four with the late signing of Nia Moore, a post from Chicago, who just got to campus last weekend. The trio of guard Andraya Carter, forward Jasmine Jones and post Bashaara Graves were the last class signed by Summitt.

Of a roster of 11, five have never suited up in a game for Tennessee. Warlick is undaunted.

"I feel really good about the feel of this team," Warlick said. "All of these kids have worked hard this summer. The freshmen have really busted their butts. I think we're going to surprise some people."

The Lady Vols will look to restore its suffocating defense, as the game plan will have to be to stop opponents and control the ball.

"We have got to get better defensively," Warlick said. "We have to score off of our defense."

Elzy will play a key role in instilling that defensive mind-set to the team. It was a role she excelled at as a player from 1996 to 2001. Elzy was Warlick's first hire last spring, followed by Jolette Law for the second opening at assistant coach. Dean Lockwood remained on board.

"I knew Kyra was really good as a coach," Warlick said. "I just didn't know how good. She is amazing. I think she is one of the best recruiters in the country, number one. I didn't know all of the intangibles as far as the kids here and the relationships that she forms and how tough she is on them."

Elzy played for Summitt and Warlick and is young enough to still relate to the players, yet old enough to command total respect.

"I think both she and Jolette bring intangibles that we haven't had," Warlick said. "Dean has been great and provides a male figure. They are all great coaches, and they relate to these kids."

That Elzy can provide that additional guidance is invaluable for Warlick, whose primary criterion for her first hire was the ability to recruit. Warlick knows recruiting is the lifeblood of a program.

With that in mind, Warlick, who can't discuss names with the media but can talk about positions and numbers, said her first signing class of 2013 is crucial.

"Huge," Warlick said. "We need to sign a couple of post players. I feel good about it. We could have a great recruiting class."

Tennessee is in the final two for No. 1 recruit Mercedes Russell, a 6-5 center from Springfield, Oregon, who will make an official visit in mid-October. Louisville is the other suitor. The two seniors are perimeter players, and Simmons is a shooting guard so signing posts in the next two classes is a must for the Lady Vols.

Warlick expects the signing class of 2013 to consist of four to five players.

Jannah Tucker, a wing player from Maryland, is already committed. She tore her ACL playing USA basketball this month and will use the next year for rehab. Tennessee could even take six in the deep class, but up to five is more likely because 2014 is also talented.

Recruiting has been a major focus for the staff. That will be balanced, beginning next week, with getting this year's team ready for the season.

Warlick will draw on last season, in which she played a dual role of trying to both run the team and defer to Summitt, as needed. Substitutions were done by committee with Summitt often having the final say. This season, while Warlick will get input from each coach – as Summitt always did – the final decision each time is hers.

Warlick did get a lot of experience last season with being the primary face of the program as she handled all post-game press conferences. She also directed practice overall, while Summitt roamed the sidelines and did more one-on-more coaching.

"It kind of laid the foundation for me to get going," Warlick said. "There was no guidebook for that, and we still had a great year."

Tennessee made it to the Elite Eight before falling to Baylor, the overall No. 1 seed and eventual national champion with a record of 40-0.

She also has embraced the concept of Tennessee as family. Warlick acquired an RV and is taking the entire staff, including secretaries, on Friday to Bristol Motor Speedway for the Food City 250.

Summitt is serving as grand marshal of the race, and Trevor Bayne is piloting the "We Back Pat," car to raise money for her foundation and awareness about Alzheimer's. Summitt was diagnosed with the disease in May of 2011 and went public three months later when the players returned to school.

"When we do things I have included everybody," Warlick said.

The 2012-13 players are now on campus and will be Warlick's official first team. They have their conditioning tests Friday morning with Heather Mason to gauge their levels of fitness – "That will be an eye-opener," Warlick said – and then will take the court next Tuesday for the first time with the coaches in individual workouts.

"Love it," Warlick said. "We'll get a measuring stick on where they are and what we need to do. I am looking forward to it to see where we are, especially the freshmen, and how everyone comes back."

Warlick had ordered Spani, who has All-American potential when healthy but has suffered from turf toe and elbow and knee injuries that led to truncated seasons for three years, to sit out the entire summer.

"I wanted her to take off all summer," Warlick said. "She has had freak accidents."

Williams is physically healed, and Simmons has shown a noticeable uptick in maturity.

"Meighan has taken on a lot of responsibility of taking the freshmen around," Warlick said. "Miko is healthy and has really shown great leadership. She and Taber have done a really, really good job."

Simmons deferred at times during her first two years on campus because the team was loaded with upperclassmen.

"She played a lot of minutes over a lot of veteran players, and I think it was difficult," Warlick said. "Now, Meighan has kind of come into her own. She has a maturity about her. Some of her leadership qualities are coming out."

Burdick increased her workout load with an emphasis on footwork and agility.

"Burdick worked about five times a day during the summer," Warlick said.

The freshman Carter is expected to push the sophomore Massengale, the incumbent starter at point guard.

"Andraya is a worker," Warlick said. "She jumps out of the gym."

Graves has a college-ready body and, like Carter, Warlick expects first-year contributions, especially with Harrison the only returning true post.

Jones, another freshman, "just needs to refine her skills a little bit" – she is expected to rebound and play defense – and joins a freshman class that is athletic overall.

"We are athletic as can be," Warlick said.

Jones will be called Jasmine while Jasmine Phillips will go by "JP."

"We always say we need that defensive stopper," "JP is that defensive stopper."

Moore, the late signee who was released from her LOI at Illinois after Law went to Tennessee, also brings some size inside.

"She is athletic, runs the floor and a shot blocker," Warlick said. "This is probably one of the most athletic teams we've had in a long, long time." Warlick has had a full schedule since last April and has realized what it means to be CEO of Lady Vols basketball – every decision crosses her desk. She has often been too busy to even contemplate the fact a homegrown product – Warlick was a track and basketball star at Bearden before enrolling at UT on a track scholarship and walking on Summitt's team – is now in charge of the Tennessee women's basketball program.

"It hits me at weird times," Warlick said. "I'll be driving in the car, and it hits me, just like it hits me about Pat. I am so busy running around to think about it but when I finally settle down, it hits me.

"You have to multitask and Pat did it very well. I had a great teacher in Pat."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories