Coaches ready to cruise again

Holly Warlick and Nikki Caldwell are itching to ride – they depart on motorcycles this afternoon – especially after Saturday's event was scrubbed because of rain.

They still haven't talked Pat Summitt into a sidecar, but they did schedule the start of TaTa Tour 2009 so that both will be present today at a special tribute for the head coach.

The former Lady Vol basketball players – Holly Warlick is now Tennessee's associate head coach and Nikki Caldwell is the head coach at UCLA – will ride to New Orleans and back next week to raise funds for breast cancer treatment and research. The TaTa Tour, now in its third year, began when the pair decided to ride bikes back to Knoxville from the Tennessee-Cal football game in 2007.

The success of that cross-country venture, called "Cruisin' for a Cause," convinced the coaches to make it a yearly event. Last spring they made a loop to Key West and back. This week they will follow the Natchez Trail to the Big Easy and back.

Information about the group can be found at: Cruisin' for a Cause.

The route and events – including one in Nashville on Sunday evening – can be found at: TaTa Tour 2009 route.

A blog about the event can be read at: Champions Blog and the group has a Twitter page at: Champions Tweet.

Donations may be made at: Champions Funds. Warlick has a personal fundraising page at: Holly's Goal.

The event has steadily gained momentum, but the coaches want to expand it with additional sponsors and events.

"We want it to be bigger," Warlick said. "It's progressed in a good fashion for us, and we're taking baby steps. We're getting more people involved. It's come along really well."

They held a kickoff party Saturday at Wild Wings Café in Knoxville that featured live music and a buffet. The establishment set up tents and trucked in sand for a beach theme. Despite Saturday's inclement weather, dozens of people showed up for the outdoor party. Warlick and Caldwell posed for photos and signed autographs for the attendees.

Orange Mountain Designs offered for sale the official TaTa Tour 2009 T-shirts, which also can be bought at: TaTa T-shirt.

The coaches will participate today in a special tribute to Pat Summitt at the Tennessee Theater – Day of 1,000 Stories – and then they will leave East Tennessee for a trip to Nashville and an appearance at the Hard Rock Café from 7 to 10 p.m.

The tour will follow the Natchez Trace, a traditional Native American trail that linked the Cumberland, Tennessee and Mississippi rivers – Natchez Trace Parkway.

"I wanted to go through the Natchez Trace," Warlick said. "I love that area, and Nikki wanted to go to New Orleans because she likes to gamble."

"But it's legal, though, so I'm good," Caldwell said, enjoying the banter with her former coaching mate on the bench. "New Orleans is just a great place. You've got great food there, and the people are so laidback and they're very open and welcoming."

The riders will roll into The Big Easy in time for the city's inaugural bike week – New Orleans Bike Week – and will hold a press conference with the city's mayor and ride in the official parade, along with making a visit to Children's Hospital.

"We're going to spread the love with the kids," Warlick said.

The bike week turned out to be a surprise, and welcome, part of the tour. The coaches found out about the event after selecting New Orleans as the destination. The city, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, needs an infusion of visitors. One of its more famous part-time residents is actor Brad Pitt, who bought a home there with actress Angelina Jolie.

"We contacted Brad Pitt and said, ‘Brad, we want to help you out here,' and he didn't call us back," Caldwell joked.

That's an appropriate line for Caldwell, whose nickname is now "Hollywood" after her relocation to the Los Angeles area. Caldwell, who just finished her first season at UCLA, will bring her Bruin team to Knoxville next season for a game against the Lady Vols.

"I think it's going to be a good experience for my team, because you've got to be on the big stage, put your team in that situation and try to win on the big stage," Caldwell said. "What better place to come to than Thompson-Boling Arena, where they lead the country in attendance, and it's a hostile environment."

"We're going to harass her," Warlick said.

"Yeah, Holly is going to harass me," Caldwell said.

Former Lady Vol Kellie Jolly Harper got a standing ovation from the crowd when she walked in last November with her Western Carolina team. It was the first time anyone could remember the opposing coach getting such a reception from the home crowd, but Harper was a beloved point guard for Tennessee and a native of the state.

"Holly will stand over there and (cheer) for me," said Caldwell, who hails from nearby Oak Ridge.

"It will be tremendous," Warlick said. "She's done a lot for this program, player, lived around here. It will be a very warm welcome."

Harper was hired last month to replace the late Kay Yow at North Carolina State.

"I was excited for her," Warlick said. "She's worked hard, and she's paid her dues. She's done a great job. It was time for her to step up, and she did."

"I think Kellie has done a great job putting herself in position to be at a prominent D1 institution, and I wish her the best of luck," Caldwell said.

The death of Yow hit hard for Caldwell and Warlick, and part of their fund-raising efforts during the TaTa Tour will be donated, as in the past, to the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund. The tour also supports the University of Tennessee Breast Health Outreach Program and The Wellness Community of East Tennessee.

Yow died Jan. 24, 2009 – in the middle of the season – and the news traveled quickly through the basketball community. Caldwell was in the gym and was told about the death by her director of basketball operations.

"We were in practice," said Caldwell, who was an assistant at Virginia when Yow was at the helm for the Wolfpack, a sister ACC school. "I had to take a minute and step away from practice. Knowing Kay Yow, she did things the right way, and she's such a great inspiration and a great person. When one is taken from you it really hits your soul because she meant so much more to the game than just wins and losses."

"She included everybody in her battle," Warlick added. "She thought that was God's plan, and she was at peace with it. She handled it so graciously. You're like, ‘Wow. What would I do?' And I'm not real sure that I could have handled it like Kay handled her whole life since she found out she had breast cancer. It's a tribute to her. That's a woman of strength."

The coaches will hear more stories of strength in the coming week when breast cancer survivors and others affected by the illness, such as caregivers and family members, attend the tour events.

"It makes us understand that we're doing something worthwhile when survivors come up and say thank you," Warlick said. "They say, ‘Thank you for what you do.' And it's everywhere we go. We hear their stories. It's been amazing. That's what touches our hearts – Nikki and I have talked about this – the most."

"We talk about us being basketball coaches," Caldwell said. "Tennessee, they battle for national championships. UCLA will get there. But these women are battling every day they wake up for their lives. It really puts everything in perspective. It's a great thing that we're doing here and we love the support that we're getting from the corporate sponsors to the volunteers, but it's also a humbling experience. When you lose a basketball game you think about what their fight and struggle is, so, again, it puts everything in perspective."

Caldwell is committed to the tours – she explained the significance of the event when she was hired at UCLA, which has the info on its website, UCLA Women's Basketball, as does Tennessee, Tennessee Women's Basketball.

"I just missed Holly," Caldwell said with a smile.

"It's just as much her foundation as it is mine, so we both are in it together," Warlick said.

Both coaches have little time to ride because their professions are pretty much year-round ones with workouts starting in August or September, a seven-month season and then observation periods at summer leagues, such as AAU basketball.

"Everybody thinks we're big biker chicks," Warlick said. "I've got a brand new bike and I haven't even been on it."

Warlick got a Harley-Davidson Road Glide, which she had hoped to debut on Saturday. But the possibility for very wet road conditions for the three-county day trip open to all riders caused them to scratch the event on the side of precaution.

Caldwell still has her Harley-Davidson Road King, but said she "wanted to test out a Street Glide" for this trip. She took a quick spin this week.

"I haven't been on a bike since last year at this time," Caldwell said. "So when I went to pick up my bike I rode around, went over to where I used to live. It's an unbelievable feeling to be in the wind. We had to go run an errand, and I was at Holly's house, and we just jumped on the bicycle and I doubled her, and it was just great to be back on the bike again. It's the best way to see God's country and spread the word and try to build awareness about breast cancer."

The 2009 tour will conclude next Saturday, May 9, at Market Square in downtown Knoxville with a welcome-back party when the riders come roaring back. Regal Entertainment Group is sponsoring Cruisin' HOME for a Cause, a free concert with musical guest, Sellars Wray. The party begins at 6 p.m.

The coaches have tried to get Summitt to come along for the ride – they even offered to stash her in a sidecar because Summitt does not ride motorcycles and fretted like a mother hen in 2007 when half of her staff was on the highway.

"I don't think it's going to happen," Caldwell said.

"Unless we drug her and Velcro her on the back," Warlick said.

They have upped the offer for a future trip – it includes Summitt's beloved Labrador retrievers – by planning to put her in the support vehicle.

"We're going to work on getting her in the RV," Caldwell said. "I think she will be more comfortable, especially if we can bring Sally Sue and Sadie, she may be willing to come."

Before the coaches leave town Sunday they will attend the special "Day of 1,000 Stories" gala for Summitt to commemorate her 1,000th win this season and salute her career.

"We're going to roast her," Caldwell said. "No, we've got some good stories. Holly has been with Pat almost 30 years. Holly has a lot of stories to tell. I think it's a unique situation because we played for her, we coached with her, and you can kind of see how you were as a player with her and then the relationship you build now when you coach with her. As a player there were times I was like, ‘What am I doing here?' "

"Absolutely," Warlick said.

"It's Summitt pushing you to that next level and that's why we're able to join in with that 1,000th win because of who she is," Caldwell said.

It was a seesaw season for the Lady Vols with the high of the 1,000 milestone and the low of bowing out to Ball State in the first round of the NCAA tourney, a program first for Tennessee. Caldwell watched the game on television.

"You needed someone (on the floor) just to grab and take control of the team, but it's a funny year because you had two major injuries right down the pipeline, your one and your four man (point guard Cait McMahan and power forward Vicki Baugh)," Caldwell said. "To lose that – those two have been a part of winning championships – and not to be on the floor I think that hurt the team. And obviously with the youth not knowing (what to expect).

"I do believe they're going to be better. The young ladies have got to understand that they've got to earn everything, that just because there were two championships before doesn't mean you're going to be hanging the banner right after that. Everybody is going to be gunning for you. I think you had some young ladies that stepped into the Lady Vol program thinking that everything is going to be given to them. You've got to go take it. They'll learn from that, and the staff will have them starving to be right there in March Madness."

But, for now, it's time for the coaches to forget about basketball and focus on breast cancer awareness.

"I'm just anxious to get on the bike," Warlick said.

"I'm going to be on the Street Glide and just glide on down to New Orleans," Caldwell said.

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