In 1980, Holly Warlick was a standout point guard for the Tennessee women’s basketball team near the end of a collegiate career that saw her set multiple program records, including a still-standing mark of steals in a season (141).
At the conclusion of her time in a Tennessee uniform, Warlick became the first athlete in school history, among both men and women, to have her jersey retired. Its likeness currently hangs among the rafters of Thompson-Boling Arena.
Now, in 2018, Warlick is more than halfway through her sixth season as the head coach of the Lady Vols, with her team fielding a 19-4 overall record. The group started out the season with one of the best streaks in program history, winning its first 15 games.
Warlick holds a 147-50 career record as a head coach, having inherited the job after years as an assistant to legendary women’s basketball pioneer Pat Summitt.
Of her five complete seasons, three of Warlick’s teams have made appearances in the Elite Eight.
Warlick’s experience as a guard for the Lady Vols has definitely helped her players. During the team’s 86-73 win over Vanderbilt on Jan. 7, she mentored freshman point guard Anastasia Hayes by utilizing her own experience in the position.
“We are talking point guard to point guard,” Warlick said following the game. “She had an unbelievable pass, and it was on the money. It got us fired up. I know we scored, but immediately my mind went, 'That was a great pass!' I wanted to make sure she knew that — it was hard; it was leading; it was a quarterback throwing to a wide receiver. She caught it and laid it up — beautiful.
“It was just a great fast break. I wanted to make sure she understood that.”
But, as with most coaching jobs, the position often invites scrutiny.
Warlick was criticized by some fans of the program following a stretch this season in which the Lady Vols dropped four of their six contests, but, according to her, the outside noise is a part of the territory.
“It comes with it,” Warlick said. “I don’t read a lot of social media, but when people get a little chirpy I get a lot of messages like, ‘Hang in there. You’re a great coach.’ And I go, ‘Well, I must be getting killed on social media.’ I got some flowers yesterday, so it can’t all be that bad.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I love what I do. There’s going to be games that people think I don’t know what the heck’s going on. That’s just the nature of the time that we live in … The only time I get upset is when they involve and attack these kids (because) that’s not right.”
Warlick does have allies in her profession. Texas A&M head coach Gary Blair expressed his approval of Warlick following his team’s 82-67 loss to Tennessee on Feb. 1, imploring the sportswriters at the postgame press conference to halt their criticism of Warlick.
“Get off of Holly's case,” Blair said. “She is doing a great job. She had the number one recruiting class in the country last year, she has the number three coming next year. How would any of you guys like to replace a legend? It's pretty hard. Get off of her case; she is doing a great job.”
The Lady Vols have six games remaining in the regular season before traveling to Nashville for the SEC Tournament and awaiting their seeding in the NCAA Tournament. If Warlick’s squad continues to perform well, an impressive postseason run seems like probable.
And if history is any indication, Warlick’s impact in leading Tennessee to that potential success could be significant.