Passing of the whistle

Pat Summitt passes over her whistle to new Lady Vols head coach Holly Warlick in a press conference. The storied head coach will now become head coach emeritus. Photo by Jolanda Jansma of Blount Press Row

Next season, for the first time in 38 years, the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers will begin their season without Pat Summitt sitting at the front of the bench.

After being diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Summitt has stepped down from the position in which she amassed eight national titles, 16 regular-season Southeastern Conference titles, and 15 SEC conference tournament titles.

She announced her decision in a press conference on Thursday.

“I just felt like it was time for me to step down, knowing that Holly [Warlick] was going to be in great hands,” said the Hall of Fame coach. “She’s a great coach. I’m going to continue to support her, but it’s never a good time. You have to find a time that you think is the right time, and that is now.”

Warlick, who has been a Lady Vols assistant coach for 27 years, has been named the head coach following Summitt’s rise to head coach emeritus.

Summitt passed her whistle to the new coach, saying, “It is now time to turn my whistle over to you.”

“I’ve been around her, as everyone’s said, I’ve seen her stare,” Warlick said, fighting back emotions. “She has blown this whistle quite a bit. Hopefully, that’s one tradition I can carry on: push these young ladies and use this whistle to the best of my ability.”

Naming Warlick head coach seemed like the perfect plan. The first jersey to be retired in Thompson Boling Arena, of a male or female, was that of Warlick.

Over the past season, she had also been taking on more and more of the responsibilities of coaching.

“I think [Summitt] allowed me to do a little bit more as games went on,” Warlick said. “It was tremendous for her to say [“good job”] after the SEC tournament, for myself, just to make sure that she knew that the program was in good hands and carrying on as she would see fit. It meant the world for me.”

Following a living legend is not something that many people would want to do. With Summitt’s having grown the game of women’s basketball to its modern peak, the challenge is even greater.

Just before announcing Warlick as the new coach, UT athletic director Dave Hart made his gratitude to Summitt known.

Holly Warlick, Summitt's assistant for 27 years, becomes the new head coach. Photo by Jolanda Jansma of Blount Press Row

“As [Warlick] takes the reins of the Lady Vol program, it would not even be appropriate for me to begin anywhere else than to have you look to the rafters of Thompson Boling Arena,” he said. “What you see here is the makings of Pat Summitt’s outstanding career: the championship banners, the SEC titles, the eight national championships and the recognition for so many outstanding athletes that have gone through her program.”

Summitt completed her career with a 1,098-208 record. Warlick needs only 1,099 wins to surpass her mentor.

Summitt was also named coach of the year 23 times, by seven different polls, while being the youngest coach to win 300 games (34 years old), 400 games (37), 500 (41), 600 (44), 700 (47), 800 (50), 900 (52), and 1,000 (56).

“We have grown the game [of] women’s basketball each and every day, along the way supported by the best fans in the country, no doubt,” Summitt said. “I think we can all agree on that. We have managed to win some ball games and hang championship banners in Thompson Boling Arena. I made a choice, early in my career, to challenge myself to step up my game each and every day.”

To Warlick, following a legend such as Summitt is a challenge well accepted.

“It’s exciting for me,” she said. “It’s exciting for me to follow a legend. I’ve coached under a legend for 27 years. I love it. It’s a great challenge for me, and I can’t wait to get started.”

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