Tennessee fires Holly Warlick after first-round NCAA exit
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee has fired women’s basketball coach Holly Warlick after a season in which the Lady Vols barely kept their NCAA Tournament streak alive and then promptly lost in the opening round.
Athletic director Phillip Fulmer said in a university release that he had informed Warlick of his decision Wednesday afternoon.
Although Warlick won 72 percent of her games after taking over for Pat Summitt in 2012, the Lady Vols couldn’t approach the heights they’d reached under her predecessor.
“While it certainly stings to make this decision, I am charged with doing what I believe is best for this storied program,” Fulmer said in a statement. “It’s important to all of us that Lady Vols basketball maintains its status among the elite.”
Warlick had a 172-67 record over seven seasons. Tennessee made it to regional finals in three of her first four years but hasn’t advanced beyond the second round any of the last three seasons.
Tennessee lost 89-77 to UCLA on Saturday to cap a 19-13 season. The Lady Vols fell short of 20 wins for the first time since 1975-76.
“Do I want to continue coaching? Absolutely,” Warlick said after the UCLA game when she was asked about her future. “But if it needs to go in a different direction, that’s not up to me.”
Dean Lockwood, an assistant on Warlick’s staff, will head the program on a temporary basis until the school names Warlick’s permanent successor.
This marked the first head coaching assignment for Warlick, a former player and longtime assistant at Tennessee. She had the task of taking over for Summitt, who won 1,098 games at Tennessee and is recognized as one of the game’s foremost contributors.
Warlick had worked on Summitt’s Tennessee staff for 27 seasons, including all eight of the Lady Vols’ national titles. Summitt announced in 2011 that she had early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, and coached for just one more season before Warlick took over.
“Holly has dedicated most of her adult life to the University of Tennessee and the Lady Vols program,” Fulmer said. “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.”
Mercedes Russell, a center for Tennessee from 2013-18, tweeted Wednesday that Warlick “had the toughest job in the basketball world and stayed resilient through it all.”
Tennessee’s first few teams under Warlick approached the success the Lady Vols had in Summitt’s last few years. Tennessee hasn’t been to the Final Four since its 2008 national championship season.
The Lady Vols won the Southeastern Conference regular-season title outright in 2013, won the SEC Tournament in 2014 and shared the SEC’s regular-season championship in 2015.
But the Lady Vols weren’t nearly as successful lately.
After going 42-6 in SEC regular-season play during Warlick’s first three seasons, the Lady Vols are just 36-28 in the four years since.
Tennessee lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2017 and 2018, only the second and third time the Lady Vols had failed to get to the Sweet 16. Tennessee’s second-round loss to Oregon State last year dropped the Lady Vols’ NCAA Tournament home record to 57-1.
This year, the Lady Vols received one of the last couple of NCAA Tournament at-large berths as they struggled with injuries and inconsistency. Tennessee’s roster included six former McDonald’s All-Americans, but they all were freshmen and sophomores.
Tennessee had a 7-9 conference record to finish the regular season below .500 in SEC play for the first time ever.
Midway through the season, Tennessee dropped six straight games for its longest skid since 1970.
In the last week of the regular season, Tennessee lost at home to a Vanderbilt team that finished 7-23, marking the first time the Commodores had ever beaten the Lady Vols at Knoxville in 34 attempts.
As Tennessee’s fortunes slumped, fan interest faded. Tennessee’s average announced home attendance of 8,028 this season was its lowest since 1993-94, down 29.5 percent from Warlick’s first season.
Warlick said after the UCLA game that “we’ve got to understand we’ve got to change our culture.” Tennessee guard Evina Westbrook said after the game that “steps need to be taken with our staff and just overall, off the court.”
Warlick, a Knoxville native, had spent nearly four decades at Tennessee as a player or coach. The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame inductee played guard for Tennessee from 1976-80 and was the first Tennessee athlete in any sport to have a jersey retired.
Tennessee may have to invest much more money to find a proven coach to replace Warlick as it attempts to rejuvenate a storied program that hasn’t reached a Final Four since its 2008 national championship season.
Warlick’s $690,000 salary put her in the middle of the pack among Southeastern Conference coaches. For comparison’s sake, Mississippi State’s Vic Schaefer receives about $1.6 million annually and South Carolina’s Dawn Staley makes $1.45 million.
Before the season, Warlick received a $25,000 raise and a three-year contract extension.
Warlick’s agent/attorney, Worrick Robinson, said the school’s termination letter said the coach was fired without cause. According to Warlick’s contract, that means the school owes her a buyout of just over $700,000.
AP sports writer Teresa M. Walker in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.