- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Holly Warlick excuses herself from the court, raises a finger to indicate how long she'll be gone, then disappears into the bowels of Thompson-Boling Arena.
It is a Saturday in early December, a few minutes after practice has ended. The court has mostly emptied of Tennessee Lady Vols, and now Warlick, the coach, is gone, too -- off to her office to retrieve a list she has typed out for espnW. Her assignment: Share five ways in which she is similar to Pat Summitt and five ways in which they are different.
Warlick reappears a minute later, holding a sheet of paper. This wasn't actually meant to be homework, typed out in advance, but Warlick wants to make sure she has the details correct. She lays the paper on the scorer's table, smoothing it out as she begins to describe each of the items listed, first the ones under "Not alike," then those under "Alike."
But before we get to the specifics, it's worth noting something else about Warlick, who was Summitt's assistant for 27 years before taking over as head coach this season. Summitt has attended all but two practices in her new role as head coach emeritus, and her presence speaks volumes about the bond between the two women, while also underscoring the fact that Warlick runs practice very much like Summitt did.
Warlick -- whose No. 10 Lady Vols' seven-game win streak was snapped Tuesday in a 76-53 loss to No. 3 Baylor in Waco, Texas -- makes only a tangential reference to this on her list, noting one way in which she and Summitt are alike: "Surround yourself with quality people." But during today's practice, it's easy to see how that maxim plays out for the Lady Vols. Warlick says little to the players in the first hour, letting her assistants -- Kyra Elzy, Jolette Law and Dean Lockwood -- do most of the talking. Warlick mostly observes, offering the occasional private instruction to a player and consulting with the assistant in charge of each particular drill. Like Summitt before her, Warlick is confident enough in both herself and her staff to step back and give the brain trust around her a prominent voice.
Make no mistake, this is not how every head coach operates. Some coaches want their voice to be the only one the team hears -- a style that never made much sense to Summitt. "It was always so important for Pat to give us ownership of the team, to train us as future head coaches," Warlick explains after practice. "Some assistants in other programs are only allowed to recruit and watch film, not coach. Who wants that?"
And so, in this way, Warlick is a first-year head coach with a much smaller than usual learning curve; thanks to Summitt, she has been handling certain aspects of the job for a while.
OK, back to Warlick's list. She points to the most obvious example of how she and Summitt are not alike: While Summitt was famous for The Stare, a steely look she would deliver to convey her frustration with a player, Warlick is much more "animated" (to use her own term). She dances up and down the sideline, alternately raising her hands in excitement and stomping her feet in frustration.
The rest of Warlick's "Not alike" column is more lighthearted, carefree, much like the coach herself. Warlick drinks Diet Coke; Summitt prefers water. Warlick rides a motorcycle; Summitt favors the stationary bike, her preferred method of exercise. Warlick played for Summitt at Tennessee, from 1976-80, and a banner hangs in her honor inside Thompson-Boling; Summitt played at Tennessee-Martin, from 1970-74. Warlick buys every new Apple gadget; Summitt is more utilitarian when it comes to technology. (Why own a laptop when you have an iPad?)
Now Warlick switches back to the "Alike" part of the list. On the court, defense is the priority for both coaches. And, as mentioned earlier, Warlick learned the art of delegating from Summitt.
Off the court, both women share an affinity for Labrador retrievers. Summitt's two dogs are blond and sage, named Sallie and Sadie; Warlick's two dogs are black and chocolate, named Chesney and Taylor (after singers Kenny Chesney and James Taylor).
Both women also have their own charitable foundations. In the summer of 2007, Warlick and fellow assistant Nikki Caldwell, now head coach at LSU, started Champions for a Cause, which helps support the fight against breast cancer. (Not surprisingly, one of the ways the foundation raises money is through a pair of multiday motorcycle rides: Cruisin' and TN4Pink.) After Summitt was diagnosed with early-onset dementia in 2011, she launched the Pat Summitt Foundation to help raise awareness of the disease.
The last item on Warlick's list is the most personal. "Both witnessed the birth of her son, Tyler," she writes, referring, of course, to Tyler Summitt, who is following in Mom's footsteps as an assistant coach for the Marquette women's basketball team.
Suddenly, Warlick shifts her feet and bends her knees, adopting the stance of a shortstop just before the pitch. "I was standing there," she says, "waiting for him …"
And that's when it becomes clear: No matter how Warlick and Summitt might differ as people, their shared history is what matters most.
14dBonnie D. Ford