Tennessee fires Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick after barely making tourney

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FILE - In this Jan. 10, 2019, file photo, Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick directs players on the court during an NCAA basketball game against Kentucky in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee was able to breathe a sigh of relief after receiving one of the last two at-large spots in this year’s women’s NCAA Tournament and remain the only women’s basketball program to play in every tourney in the event’s 38-year history. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston,F ile)
Tennessee is going another direction after firing Holly Warlick. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston,F ile)

Tennessee is parting ways with women’s basketball coach Holly Warlick after seven years, the last of which has been ripe with pressure and questions about if she’s the right leader for the top-tier program.

The athletic department announced the change Wednesday afternoon.

“Holly and I met this afternoon, and I informed her of the decision to change leadership within the program," Director of Athletics Phillip Fulmer said in the release. "Holly has dedicated most of her adult life to the University of Tennessee and the Lady Vols program. She loves Tennessee, and Tennessee needs to always love her back. She was front and center as this program developed into the model for women's intercollegiate excellence.

"While it certainly stings to make this decision, I am charged with doing what I believe is best for this storied program. It's important to all of us that Lady Vols basketball maintains its status among the elite."

Warlick is a Tennessee alumna who played for legendary coach Pat Summitt from 1976 to 1980. She was a three-time All-American guard who came back to coach under Summitt from 1985 through 2012. When Summitt was forced away from coaching due to early onset Alzheimer’s disease, Warlick took over.

Warlick and the Lady Vols made it into the NCAA women’s tournament despite worries nearly all season the historic postseason streak built by Summit would come to an end. It is still the only program to make the women’s tournament every year of its existence.

The happiness didn’t last long as the team lost to UCLA, 89-77, in the first round. It’s the second time in 10 years the team has not made it past the first round. To its credit, the sixth-seeded Bruins took out Maryland and will compete in the Sweet 16 this weekend.

In the immediate aftermath of the Lady Vols’ loss, players told media changes were needed. It echoed calls from various other former players who have questioned if Warlick is the one to lead the team, though they also gave her kudos for stepping into the role.

Warlick went 172-67 in her seven seasons with three total SEC titles comprised of the regular season championship in 2013 and 2015 and the tournament championship in 2014. Her teams made the Elite Eight in three of her years and 11 Tennessee players were drafted to play in the WNBA. The team also continued its 100 percent graduation rate, per the Tennessee release.

It’s hard to follow a legend like Summitt, even if one learned directly from her. In January, the Lady Vols had their first losing streak of three or more games in 33 years. In 2016, the team fell out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1985 and was seeded lower than No. 5 in the tournament for the first time.

At a school that is proudly a namesake for collegiate women’s basketball, the pressure to keep up the high standards Summit set is immense.

Warlick had kind comments for Tennessee and the school’s treatment of women in her final press conference as head coach. She guided the Vols out of the Summitt era well, an objectively difficult ask for anyone, and will hopefully be looked at fondly for what she’s done for the Lady Vols.

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