With that gesture, what had been known for 24 hours seemed official – Pat Summitt was stepping down as head coach at the University of Tennessee and Holly Warlick was succeeding the legend she played for and worked beside for 31 total years.
Summitt’s son, Tyler, was at her side on the stage. Warlick’s mother, Fran, occupied a front row seat at the press conference.
It was an afternoon of announcements and anecdotes with the current Lady Vols sitting in one section and at times laughing and at others wiping their eyes.
When a photo montage was displayed on the overhead video, one of the last images was Summitt and the five seniors on what is now her last team. Every member of the 2011-12 team was in attendance for the event, which was held at Thompson-Boling Arena.
An overflow of media occupied the areas in front of and to the sides of the stage, and the press conference was carried live by multiples news outlets.
Summitt had a prepared statement that outlined her joy that on the same day she announced she was retiring, her son announced he had accepted a job as an assistant coach for the women’s basketball program at Marquette.
She also joked about her starting salary - $250 a month at a time that she was bouncing checks – and talked about growing up on a dairy farm and how that instilled in her the value of hard work.
She saluted the 161 women who had worn orange for the Lady Vols and vowed to the players sitting in the front two rows to Summitt’s left that she would always be available to them.
“I can promise you ladies, I’m here for you,” Summitt said. "Trust me that will happen. The success of the Lady Vols will always, always continue.”
Summitt closed her speech with a message to the fans and asked Warlick to stand up.
“Finally, I have a special message and challenge to our fans and our supporters,” Summitt said. “You have helped to make Lady Vol Basketball very special. I need you right now – I want you to listen to this – to step up more than ever to support our new head coach.
“Holly, I want you to come up here. It is now time to turn over my whistle to you. Thank you.”
The mentor and pupil then embraced to applause and audible gasps of breath as some attendees became emotional.
It was powerfully symbolic and also underscored the finality of what had just happened – that after 38 years Summitt would no longer be on the sideline as the head coach of the Lady Vols basketball program.
She will remain with the program as head coach emeritus and will have duties that include mentoring players, making contact with recruits in basketball and other sports via email or handwritten notes, engaging in all on-campus activities with recruits, observing practice and analyzing the game with coaches and assisting with the locker room enhancement project.
Summitt was asked what her top priority would be in her new role.
“To come to work every day, to be around the student-athletes – maybe they’ll keep me young,” the 59-year-old Summitt said. “I’m getting ready to turn the big one but I can still, yeah, 30; hardly.
“But being around young people, it’s a breath of fresh air every day. And having such a great group, our managers, everybody – they’re invested, so they’re still going to see me and I’m still going to yell at them. But I love these young people and, hopefully, they'll keep me young.”
Summitt’s graciousness and sense of humor kept what could have been a sad day – the end of a nearly four-decade era in women’s college basketball – from being anything but for those in attendance. She made jokes, smiled at the videos and photo montage and wrapped her arm around Tyler and pointed to the screen when an image of him as a tyke appeared for a net-cutting ceremony.
Summitt handled the question-and-answer session with the media, as did Tyler, and then departed with Mickey Dearstone, the Voice of the Lady Vols, for a radio session.
That left Warlick on the stage for the formal press conference to announce her elevation to head coach.
Dave Hart, vice chancellor and director of UT athletics, outlined his season-long observations that led him to select Warlick for the job. He pointed out the tough position that she was placed in and noted how well she had handled the role under unprecedented circumstances.
“Holly’s name and Holly’s presence on the bench are really woven into the fabric of Lady Vol basketball, but that is not why I made the decision to offer the job to Holly Warlick,” Hart said.
“That’s nice, but that had nothing to do with that decision. Watching Holly perform this year in her role in a very unique circumstance with Pat fighting this terrible disease, watching Holly Warlick grow as a coach, as a person and as someone who could handle the leadership role that was demanded – and that role went far beyond the norm as I indicated a moment ago.
“As the season progressed, I became more and more convinced that we did not need to go on a national search. Pat and I talked regularly as the season went along about a lot of things. There was a time late in the season when she said to me, ‘Dave, if I made the decision, and I haven’t made the decision yet, but if I made the decision not to coach next year, have you given any thought to who will follow.’
And I said, ‘I have, Pat. I am giving very serious consideration to Holly.’ And she said, ‘That would excite me.’ And I don’t think she said it, either, based on her being Holly’s mentor or Holly being her former player. I think she made it very sincerely that she believed as I did, that Holly Warlick could perform in that role and perform very, very well.”
Warlick received sustained applause – there were invited guests at the press conference, along with family members, friends and the team – when Hart formally introduced her as the new head coach.
“I feel like the luckiest person in the world,” said Warlick, who thanked Hart and UT Chancellor Dr. Jimmy Cheek, who both remained on the stage with her. “I get to coach at a school that’s always been in my blood, and this is my home.
“It’s only taken me 27 years to get to this point, and I just really didn’t want to rush it. I told Pat to take all the time she needed.”
That brought laughter from the group and Warlick went on to explain why she stayed at Summitt’s side for so long.
“People have asked me, ‘Why have you not left?’ And I said, ‘Why would I?’ Why would I leave a place that is rich in tradition, has an unbelievable administration that has always supported women’s basketball and women’s sports, and has the most incredibly supportive fans in the country?
“It didn’t take me being a genius to stay here and love what I do. I do love this program, and I’m proud of this team. They work incredibly hard, and every day they put in the time and effort. I’m excited about the young ladies we have coming in (signees) next year.”
It also was announced Thursday that Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood will remain with the program. With the departure of Mickie DeMoss to the WNBA, Warlick has two openings to fill, and she said that she hoped to have that done by next week.
All three of Tennessee’s 2012 recruits will come to Knoxville as planned — Jasmine Jones of Alabama; Andraya Carter of Georgia; and Bashaara Graves of Tennessee. The change at the helm had no effect on their plans, and all three knew that Summitt might not be able to continue on the bench.
The staff’s attention also has turned to recruiting with several targets in the class of 2013. Warlick and Lockwood will be on the road this weekend to recruit.
“Our staff has really worked hard in maintaining recruiting the young female athletes,” Warlick said. “We’ve held on to some great kids. I think the uncertainty about what was happening was a little bit of a concern, but immediately yesterday Dean and I got on the phone, and we’ve had nothing but positive reaction for myself and Dean staying and especially Pat staying on as well.
“It’s been really a positive response for us on the recruiting side.”
It was also business as usual for Warlick and Lockwood as soon as the media responsibilities ended Thursday. They are still permitted to have workouts with the team in small groups — that window closes next week by NCAA rules — and were getting ready to head to Pratt Pavilion.
Warlick still had Summitt’s whistle around her neck while she went from camera to camera and reporter to reporter for the one-on-one interviews after the press conference ended.
“Pat just giving me her blessing – that was my biggest thing,” Warlick said. “For her giving me the opportunity as a young female to play for her, and she’s been a coach to me, a mentor and a great friend. To have the opportunity to work under Pat Summitt for 27 years is the most incredible thing I can say.
“I have been around her, as everyone has said, I’ve seen her stare, and she has blown this whistle quite a bit. I hope that’s one tradition I can care on and push these young ladies and make sure I use this whistle to the best of my ability.”
COACH SUMMITT THE SECOND: Tyler Summitt, who is emerging as somewhat of a savant when it comes to coaching – he has a catalogue on his computer of every basketball formation, offense and defense, that he has ever been presented during various stints as Lady Vols practice player and Vols walk-on – fielded questions Thursday about his new job.
He was asked to tell a story about the AAU team he coached over the weekend.
“We actually had five players,” Summitt said. “A lot of them were taking the ACT – I coach 17-and-under girls – they were taking the ACT. Academics first, right mom? They couldn’t make the tournament, so I had five.
“One of them was actually late, and it’s my policy that if you’re late you’re not going to start; you might not even play. So we started the game with four players. The refs, the other coach and everybody in the stands were looking at me like I was crazy, but something my mom always instilled in me was that discipline comes first.”
PRESS TRANSCRIPT: The Tennessee Lady Vols website provided a transcript of Thursday’s remarks from all participants.
It can be read in its entirety by CLICKING HERE.
INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE