Holly Warlick can't reach for a book or a manual. There are limits to the experience from which she draws.
So perhaps it stands to reason then that Tennessee's associate head coach couldn't foresee the Lady Vols' women's basketball season taking such a calamitous turn. In advance of its showdown with No. 7 Kentucky (21-3, 10-1 SEC) at Thompson-Boling Arena on Monday (TV: ESPN2, 7 p.m.), No. 11 Tennessee (17-7, 8-3) still is coming to grips with the latest broadside — a 93-79 thrashing at the hands of Vanderbilt on Thursday in Nashville.
"I never thought it would play out like this, not one bit'' Warlick said.
In the next breath, she added: "But you never imagine Pat getting a sickness either."
The reference was to UT head coach Pat Summitt, who announced last August that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, but would continue coaching. As Summitt's right-hand woman, Warlick braced for a change in her role. Nearly six months later, Warlick concedes: "It's been a lot harder than I anticipated, but I'm OK."
Other than Summitt, no one on Tennessee's staff is more familiar with the program's history and traditions than Warlick. She was an All-American point guard from 1976-80 and has been an assistant coach since 1985. She's been through everything from 11-loss seasons to all eight national championships.
She has assumed more responsibility the past few seasons pertaining to practice, strategy and game management.
But nothing she's experienced in the past four decades could prepare her for the seismic shift in Summitt's situation this season. Incorporating such extraordinary circumstances into a daily
routine has been an undertaking for which there is no blueprint.
"There's not a leadership book that has been written (for this),'' Warlick said. "It's a day-to-day thing. Every day brings a daily challenge."
And one of the biggest might be the one thing that technically hasn't changed. Despite her diminished role, Summitt still is the head coach.
"I'm still working for Pat Summitt,'' Warlick said. "And I'm going to put forth my best effort to work for her. Hopefully things can stay afloat."
Before leaving UT in 2003 to become the head coach at Kentucky, Lady Vols assistant Mickie DeMoss sat in Warlick's chair as the associate head coach. She has reflected back to those days and wondered: "If all of a sudden Pat needed me to step up and be in the forefront, to be the face of the program, the voice of the program, would I have been ready for that?"
"It's almost like Holly's learning on the job," DeMoss said.
And the job changes on a regular basis.
"I know Holly has the utmost respect for Pat,'' DeMoss said. "She never wants to feel like she oversteps her boundaries, but she also has to feel like every ship has got to have a captain.
"I think that at times when Pat is more involved than others, then Holly probably has to pull back more. And then days when Pat is not as engaged, then she has to step up more. I think we all feel that to a certain degree but it falls a little harder on Holly's shoulders."
Despite Warlick's responsibilities, she said that the coaches have tried to make the shift in roles work with a team-like approach. DeMoss and fellow assistant Dean Lockwood both have been head coaches and have a combined 65 seasons of coaching experience.
"We're trying to make sure everyone has a voice, everyone has a say,'' Warlick said. "Pat still has her voice and it's still big. We're all in this."
Since the season's start, Warlick has had the biggest say as a spokesperson. She has handled media obligations on a regular basis, including all post-game interview sessions. Even after victories, she's occasionally looked as if she played in the game. The season's strain, however, has been more evident in the past month. Four times in that span, Warlick has had to answer for a loss.
At Notre Dame, she apologized for the team's play after a 72-44 rout. When the Lady Vols blew a seven-point lead in the final five minutes and were upset by South Carolina, 64-60, Warlick seemed bewildered and said, "We were just flat and I don't have an answer for it."
There was a hint of anger in her voice on Thursday as she detailed how Vanderbilt had trampled two of Tennessee's program staples, defense and rebounding.
As if that wasn't tough enough, Warlick also had to field an awkward question Thursday about Summitt's future, specifically whether she thought this was the last game Summitt will coach at Memorial Gymnasium.
"I don't think so," Warlick said. "I mean Pat is coaching. She still is coaching and she's going to continue to coach. So I hope it's not the last time and I have not heard if it is or isn't. She's still the head coach of this basketball team."
Warlick realizes how difficult the season has been on everyone involved. She empathizes with the players in acknowledging, "They're still kids." She lauds the ongoing support of the university administration by saying, "It's amazing how positive they've been."
And Monday night, no matter the degree of difficulty, Warlick will enter an interview room and offer further explanation about how this unusual season continues to play out.