A little more than one year after he ascended to the throne of the University of Tennessee athletics department, the honeymoon is over for Phillip Fulmer. The Vols athletics director has his first real test in front of him.
He has to fire women’s basketball coach Holly Warlick.
There are those who would certainly argue that finding a football coach eclipsed the current situation with women’s basketball. Fulmer was brought onboard after John Currie had completely bungled the football coaching search and been fired as athletics director. The college football nation was watching — and laughing — as Tennessee tried to find a coach.
But the counter-argument is that hiring a coach is scarcely as difficult as knowing when — and how — to fire a coach. Anyone can extend an offer. It takes brass to look someone in the eye and terminate them — especially when they’re a part of the family. With the UT football program, Fulmer was tasked with finding someone to fill a vacancy at one of college football’s blue bloods. He didn’t attempt to lure a big name to Knoxville; he went after a relatively unknown defensive coordinator who was eager for a shot at being a head coach. And that’s not a knock on Jeremy Pruitt; the jury is still out on Fulmer’s big hire, but there’s nothing to indicate it was the wrong hire.
There are also those who would argue that few people care about women’s basketball. With no offense intended towards women’s basketball, that’s probably true. But the UT women’s basketball program is different. Much different.
For starters, this is the Lady Vols basketball program — a national brand. At Tennessee, Pat Summitt broke a thousand glass ceilings for female athletes; she essentially built the women’s game from the ground up. The women’s basketball hall of fame is in Knoxville, for Pete’s sake.
And Holly Warlick was Summitt’s chosen successor. A former Lady Vols player, Warlick was a long-time assistant to Summitt and stepped into Summitt’s immense shoes after Summitt became too ill to coach due to early-onset Alzheimer’s. As Summitt walked away from the game, she admitted that Warlick had been doing much of the work since her dementia diagnosis.
Complicating matters for Fulmer is the so-called “old guard” of women’s athletics at Tennessee — the not-insignificant but seldom spoken of segment of the fan base that supports women’s athletics, primarily basketball, through donation and effort. The old guard is eternally leery of interference from the men’s side of the UTAD, still unhappy with the Nike-influenced meddling with the Lady Vol brand; still angry that women’s sports were placed under the same administrative umbrella as men’s sports.
Fulmer is going to have to navigate a virtual mine field as he determines how and when to replace Warlick.
But it has to be done. What key boosters think is right for an athletics program isn’t always what is best. Remember, there were key boosters who supported the hire of since-fired Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano to succeed Butch Jones at Tennessee.
The unescapable truth is that Warlick is slowly dismantling the Lady Vols basketball program. She inherited what was arguably the most recognizable brand in all of women’s sports. She had the misfortune of taking the reins at a time when the game’s parity was expanding by leaps and bounds.
First, she failed to maintain UT’s lofty perch in the women’s basketball world. Then, she lost control.
Warlick’s career started well enough. She won regular season SEC championships two of her first three seasons. The other season, her team tied for second in the regular season and won the conference tournament. Twice in those three years, she advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
There were red flags even back then; clearly, the fire that Summitt had brought to the program was gone. But as long as Warlick was winning, it was hard to argue with her success.
It all came crashing down in 2016, when Tennessee lost 14 regular season games and finished seventh in the SEC, with a paltry conference record of 8-8. But Warlick’s team advanced to the Elite Eight again, and she had put together an excellent recruiting class. Give her time, her defenders said; it will get better.
It did get somewhat better, as the Lady Vols simply out-talented their opposition in 2017 and 2018. But they finished fifth and fourth in the SEC those two years, and were bounced from the NCAA Tournament on opening weekend both years.
Along the way, many of the impressive streaks that Summitt had built came to an end. This year has continued that trend, as the Lady Vols have started 1-4 in SEC play. First, they lost back-to-back games at home for the first time in 22 years. Then they lost three straight games for the first time in 33 years — and three straight conference games for the first time ever. Now they’ve lost four in a row for the first time since 1970.
In Tuscaloosa on Thursday, the Lady Vols faced an Alabama team that was 9-8 and had lost three straight SEC games. And the Tide won by 21 points. It was domination. And in the clearest sign yet that Warlick has lost her team, the Lady Vols simply quit in the second half. They were out-scored 26-10 in the fourth quarter, as the game turned into a blowout.
“We just need to come together,” freshman Rae Burrell said, “yeah just come together and figure out what needs to be done to move on from this point.”
Comments like that have been common from players this season, another indicator that this is a team wandering about without leadership — or, at least, without real respect for that leadership.
Warlick’s career record of 165-59 (.737), with three Elite Eight appearances in seven years, would be considered rock solid at most schools.
But Tennessee isn’t most schools. Warlick is 30-23 in the SEC in the past four years. She has won just one SEC Tournament in seven years; hasn’t been to the Final Four…with Tennessee — the program that once dominated women’s basketball.
“It was hard to watch,” Warlick said after Tennessee’s loss to Alabama.
Yes, it was hard to watch. It’s been hard to watch for some time now. The solution, though, appears clear.
Fulmer helped complicate the mess that is UT women’s basketball when he offered Warlick a contract extension after the 2018 season. Now he’s under the gun. For the first time, he has to fire a coach. And the clock is ticking.