Commentary

Lady Vols, SEC look very different

League turns a page with four new coaches and even two new teams

Originally Published: November 8, 2012
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW

Holly WarlickDonald Page/Getty Images An affable personality makes Holly Warlick the best possible facilitator for a new era at Tennessee.

As you read this, a chocolate lab puppy named Taylor just might be chewing up something that she shouldn't at Holly Warlick's home. Or Taylor might be collecting sticks, another of her favorite hobbies.

"I'll tell you, she is just slightly high-strung," Warlick, now officially Tennessee women's basketball head coach, said. "My black lab, who's 9 years old, watches this and then looks at me like, 'What did you do?'"

She brought in a new companion for the older dog, Chesney, whom Warlick thought was moping around after another of her dogs had passed away. Enter the puppy, who is named after James Taylor, one of Warlick's favorite musicians.

"She's fun, but my goodness: energy off the charts," Warlick said. "She's 7 months old, still in the 'I've got to chew everything' stage."

If you are aware of the youth factor for Tennessee this season, you see the connection: Warlick has a real puppy at home, and a lot of youngsters -- at least in basketball-playing terms -- on the court.

The Lady Vols' roster: two seniors, one junior, four sophomores (one a junior college transfer in her first season at Tennessee) and four freshmen. The kiddos aren't chewing up the furniture in the locker room or anything, but they require some of the same patience that a cute but toothy young canine does.

"My little puppy has taught me more about patience, something I usually don't have a whole lot," Warwick acknowledged. "We haven't put much [of the playbook] in yet, trying to go slow for them. Especially for the freshmen, college in itself can be overwhelming, along with basketball.

[+] EnlargeTerri Williams Flournoy
David Butler II/US PresswireFormer Georgetown coach Terri Williams-Flournoy replaces Nell Fortner at Auburn.

"They're athletic and they play hard. That's half of our battle -- consistently playing hard and giving great effort."

That's actually a battle with most players making the leap to Division I sports, regardless of where they go to school. But the youngsters at Tennessee now are under a type of scrutiny they probably don't even fully realize or understand.

It's a big season of change for not just Tennessee, but SEC women's basketball. For the first time since 1974 -- a completely different era of women's athletics -- Pat Summitt, who is now head coach emeritus, is not running the Tennessee program.

There are also new coaches in place at Auburn, Mississippi State and Mississippi. Terri Williams-Flournoy, who had breathed life into Georgetown's women's program, replaced Nell Fortner at Auburn. Vic Schaefer, longtime defensive guru for Texas A&M, takes over at Mississippi State for Sharon Fanning, who stepped down after 17 seasons with the Bulldogs.

Adrian Wiggins, who appeared to have cleaned up a mess at Fresno State, became part of one at Mississippi before ever coaching a game. He was put on administrative leave and stripped of his coaching duties in October because of an investigation into recruiting improprieties by two members of his staff, who were fired. Brett Frank is acting head coach now for Ole Miss.

There are also two new schools in the SEC: Texas A&M and Missouri. The Aggies bring in something that previously only Tennessee had among SEC schools: a women's hoops NCAA title. The 2011 national champions are coached by Gary Blair, who knows the SEC quite well from his 10 years running Arkansas' program from 1993 to 2003.

Meanwhile, Kentucky -- a program that not so many years ago was an afterthought at best in women's basketball -- is the SEC favorite this season. The Wildcats have made two trips to the Elite Eight in five seasons under coach Matthew Mitchell, and hope for a Final Four breakthrough in 2013.

While there is still an iconic "old-timer" in the SEC -- Georgia's Andy Landers, in his 34th season in Athens, has a team picked to finish second in the league -- there is an undeniable sense that the conference has turned a page.

There will never be another Summitt, and Warlick will be the first to say that. But she sees both Tennessee specifically and the SEC in general as carrying on the same tradition both always have.

"My opinion of the SEC is it's still the best in the country -- it's an athletic, physical conference," Warlick said.

And what of Tennessee being picked to finish fifth in the SEC? "I love it that we are playing that underdog role. It's been very rare for us," Warlick added. "I understand, though, you can't lose five starters and bring in all these new people and think we should be in the top 10. And us as coaches are going to use the rankings as motivation any way we see fit."

Conflict at Tennessee

A lot has gone on at Tennessee in the past several months, though, besides Warlick's move to the head coach's role.

The Lady Vols won the 2012 SEC tournament, finished 27-9 and fell in the Elite Eight to eventual NCAA champ Baylor. For most programs, that would be an extremely good season. But because Tennessee has eight NCAA titles, anything short of a Final Four berth is to a degree a disappointment for some in the Orange Crush's large and loyal fan base.

Beyond that, though, everyone associated with Tennessee -- in fact, everyone who's involved in or follows women's basketball -- was dealing last season with the grief in knowing that Summitt's astonishing career would end sooner than expected because of illness. Summitt had revealed in August 2011 that she has early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.

I haven't seen any effect on our kids as far as things that have gone on … The administration has been huge for me; they don't want anything to change with women's basketball and what we've built and stand for.

-- Tennessee coach Holly Warlick

Summitt's move to the emeritus role coincided with Warlick's official elevation to a job she had done a lot of last season anyway while still an assistant. Tennessee made these changes public in a nationally televised announcement in April, with athletic director Dave Hart speaking at length about his respect for Summitt and their good friendship -- although he'd been on the job at Tennessee only since September of 2011.

There was a lot happening behind the scenes, which was evident even that day. Joan Cronan, who had been Tennessee's women's athletic director since 1983 and filled in as interim AD for men and women until Hart took over, was not up on the dais with Hart, Warlick, Summitt and Summitt's son, Tyler. Instead, Cronan -- who, in the process of retiring, has moved into an advisory role -- was sitting in the audience with other Tennessee employees and fans. It appeared Hart wanted to affirm who was now in charge.

Debby Jennings, who had essentially founded the position of the school's women's basketball media relations director in 1977, was virtually shut out of the planning for the announcement. In May, Jennings retired, then in September filed a lawsuit against Hart and the athletic department, saying she was told she had to retire or would be fired.

Jennings alleges gender and age discrimination, and also says Tennessee's athletic-department restructuring -- a merging of what used to be separate departments for men and women -- has resulted in both gender, age and racial inequity.

In an affidavit in August, Summitt confirmed Jennings' account that Hart had told Summitt in March that she would no longer be coaching the team after that season. In the affidavit, Summitt said she was upset because "it was a decision I would have liked to make on my own."

But then in October, after news broke of the affidavit, Summitt reversed course and released a statement saying there had been a misunderstanding, and the decision to step down was hers entirely.

Other longtime employees of the Tennessee women's athletic department, athletic trainer Jenny Moshak and strength/conditioning coach Heather Mason, have been in a protracted dispute with the university over what they say are inequities in pay and opportunities for women and/or those who work in women's athletics at Tennessee.

Moshak and Mason originally filed their complaint in 2010 with Tennessee's Office of Equity and Diversity. It was dismissed, and then last month, Moshak and Mason filed gender-discrimination suits against the school, claiming they were retaliated against for their original complaint. Collin Schlosser, a former Lady Vols strength coach who was among several Tennessee employees laid off in April, joined as a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Hart's supporters say he had to trim jobs and make difficult decisions on pay and staff responsibilities because of the merger. But however these lawsuits are eventually settled, the disputes have to in some degree affected the way Tennessee is perceived. Tennessee was considered the gold standard in women's college sports in terms of administration and how power was distributed. That luster has been dimmed.

But does that necessarily have an impact on the performance of Tennessee's women's athletic teams? Warlick says it won't change anything with women's basketball.

Warlick, who played for Summitt from 1976 to 1980, was born in Knoxville and has lived there most of her life. Anyone who knows Warlick might suspect that personally, she has been pained by some of what has happened. But she has always been a good soldier, for both her alma mater and for Summitt.

Warlick has avoided being "caught in the middle" in any of the disputes. Her affable personality and the way she always gives credit to others make her perhaps the best possible facilitator for a new era in Tennessee's athletic department.

"I haven't seen any effect on our kids as far as things that have gone on," Warlick said. "I know a lot of things are new here, and I've surrounded myself with people who are trying to keep us in the right direction.

"The administration has been huge for me; they don't want anything to change with women's basketball and what we've built and stand for. I haven't felt any negativity or pressure. When something comes out in the newspaper, we've had to deal with it, but it hasn't involved me, really. I'm getting the support and things I needed to keep the program headed in the right direction."

New kids on the block

Real puppies grow up fairly quickly. Their behavior is shaped largely by how much time you have to teach and nurture them.

Youngsters on the basketball court need plenty of guidance, too. The three upper-class Tennessee players -- seniors Taber Spani and Kamiko Williams, and junior Meighan Simmons -- know they have a lot of leading to do.

[+] EnlargeAriel Massengale
AP Photo/Wade PaynePoint guard Ariel Massengale is one of eight sophomores or freshmen on Tennessee's 11-player roster.

"As you get older, your mentality has to change and you have to become a better communicator," said Simmons, who is the team's top returning scorer at 11.1 points per game. "You want to make sure you're doing the right thing. I try to communicate with [the freshmen] that it shouldn't matter who your coach is, it's how much heart you play with."

The players in their first season at Tennessee -- freshmen Bashaara Graves, Nia Moore, Jasmine Jones and Andraya Carter, and sophomore Jasmine Phillips -- will be the first Lady Vols since the early 1970s, when the program was in its infancy, to have someone other than Summitt as head coach.

The three sophomores in their second season -- Ariel Massengale, Cierra Burdick and Isabelle Harrison -- will have heavier loads this season now that Glory Johnson, Shekinna Stricklen, Vicki Baugh, Alicia Manning and Briana Bass have graduated.

"All three have developed their games in the offseason," Warlick said. "Izzy Harrison is the one you could see the biggest difference in. She didn't play a lot last year; it was a learning year. She has improved her confidence.

"Burdick got in the gym and made a commitment to the defensive aspect of her game. And Massengale wanted to get in a little better shape. Overall, those three have become big-time leaders for us even as sophomores."

Warlick also complimented the focus that Simmons put on defense while training over the summer. Spani and Williams are players who've been hampered by injuries during their Tennessee careers, yet Warlick thinks both can be important contributors as seniors.

Tennessee's schedule is the same as usual: full of tough opponents, both in nonconference play and the SEC. December, for instance, includes matchups with North Carolina, Texas, Baylor, Stanford and Rutgers.

Warlick has two new assistants in former Tennessee player Kyra Elzy and former Illinois head coach Jolette Law. Both have reputations as top recruiters, and along with assistant Dean Lockwood recently helped Tennessee land a huge gem for next year. Mercedes Russell, a post player out of Oregon who's rated No. 1 by ESPN's Hoopgurlz, made a verbal commitment to come to Knoxville.

In her 27 previous seasons as assistant at Tennessee, Warlick has dealt with losing multiple seniors before and needing to quickly incorporate talented freshmen. And a lot of the responsibilities of being a head coach -- including dealing with the media -- were things she did last season.

So while a lot is new at Tennessee and in the SEC, Warlick isn't feeling overwhelmed. To the contrary, she sounds excited and happy. There was a lot of emotional burden on Warlick in the past year, as she thoughtfully navigated her way through a season where she showed the utmost respect to Summitt but also took the reins of ultimate responsibility.

Warlick is just six years younger than Summitt. Had Summitt not been struck by illness, Warlick might not ever have become a head coach. Warlick never had a desire to leave Tennessee, where she has always played such a large part in what the Lady Vols have accomplished.

But now Warlick really is the boss. A different kind of boss, but one who has the very same philosophy, work ethic and expectations.

"We're still striving to win championships and that's still our goal," Warlick said. "To represent Tennessee as we've always done."

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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