Photo by Adam Brimer, Knoxville News Sentinel // Buy this photo
Holly Warlick’s youth wasn’t served by being born in South Carolina. Although her mother, Fran, occasionally reminds her, she was too young to remember.
Conversely, Tennessee’s first-year women’s basketball coach will never forget growing up in Knoxville. Her personal history here is meaningful and her roots run deep into hallowed ground.
“She takes great pride in being from Bearden (High) and Rocky Hill,” Lady Vols assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. “There’s a connection to those people and that time that will last for the rest of her life.”
Warlick recalled some of the people and places last Tuesday during a break in the team’s media day, punctuating some stories with hearty laughter and others with thoughtful pauses.
“Loved them,” she said, embracing the sum of her memories as if she was hugging a loved one. Obviously, they are dear to her heart. They are bound to influence her actions as she gets her arms around the challenge of replacing UT coaching legend Pat Summitt. Tennessee faces Coker College in its final exhibition today at Thompson-Boling Arena. Game time is 2 p.m.
“I think she brings a lot of knowledge,” said Marion Ferrill, Warlick’s older sister, “but also a lot of love and compassion.”
Lockwood and the rest of the Lady Vols got a glimpse of Warlick’s formative years last week, when Bearden surprised Warlick by retiring her No. 22 basketball jersey prior to the Bulldogs’ football game against Catholic. The ceremony had some staying power with at least one player. Junior guard Meighan Simmons was wearing the No. 22 shirt everyone received that night before Friday’s practice. The moment resonated with Warlick as well.
“We were walking back to our cars,” Lockwood said, “and she said, ‘this was such a great place to go to school. That was such a great time in my life.’ ”
Warlick, who was an All-American point guard at Tennessee and an assistant coach on Summitt’s staff for the past 27 years, sees her father’s love of sports in herself. Since Warlick’s older brother, Will, also described the late Bill Warlick as “easy-going, upbeat and jovial,” his youngest daughter shares those qualities as well.
As for Fran’s influence, Warlick paused to consider her words.
“They’re both alike,” Marion said. “So they butt heads.”
True, Warlick said.
“It’s a little toughness,” said Warlick, eventually qualifying Mother’s portion of her genetic inheritance. “It’s a prideful thing.”
Fran is 83 years old and still works three days a week. She has a scrapbook that chronicles Warlick’s achievements but speaks of her in a matter-of-fact manner.
“People will say, ‘I’ll bet you’re really proud of Holly,’ ” Fran said. “Well, yes I am, but I’m not a real demonstrative mother. It’s a good job and it pays well.”
Fran comes by such appraisals honestly. She heard much the same from her mom — such as the time she came home as the newly elected president of her freshman class.
“ ‘That’s fine Francis, but you have to get in there and dust that dining room furniture,’ ” said Fran, laughing. “I could’ve been president of the United States. She didn’t care.”
At least Fran is informative. In the span of one conversation, she said that her youngest daughter was a tiny 4 pounds, 5 ounces at birth. She took wood shop in high school. She played Dorothy in her elementary school’s version of the “Wizard of Oz.” She played the clarinet. She played sports with the other boys in the neighborhood — and held her own, too.
“She’s always been a very independent young lady,” Fran said of Warlick. “She didn’t think there was anything she couldn’t do.”
A neighborhood teaming with teammates, a loving family and nurturing community comprised an idyllic setting. Warlick flourished as an athlete, surpassing Will in terms of trophies. She became a standout track and field performer at Bearden, good enough to earn a scholarship to Tennessee. She built enough confidence in her basketball abilities to eventually walk on at UT and prove herself to Summitt,
At the same time, some tragic events took place, introducing a real-world element to Warlick’s life.
For instance, she couldn’t do anything about the death of her friend, Terry Heffernan. He died in a shooting accident when Warlick was in junior high. She and her mother rushed to UT Medical Center after the accident and then endured an anguished ride home.
“She was just beating her hands on the dashboard,’’ Fran said.
Warlick’s father died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage when Warlick was 16. Will described the ripple effect as “socio-economic’ in nature with the family moving into a smaller three-bedroom house. While Will and Marion each had separate rooms, Warlick shared a room with her mother.
The family also tooled around in an older car that required one door to be tied shut with an old basketball net.
While these experiences made Warlick more self-reliant, she doesn’t recall them with any sense of self-pity.
“It was a car,” she said of the net-mobile. “And rooming with my mom, it was a home.”
For Warlick, the lingering tragedy of her father’s death has been him never seeing his passion for sports fully realized in her.
“I think when I got older, it was even tougher,” she said. “At the time, I don’t know if you fully grasp it. Looking back, he never saw me play in college. He never was a part of my successes that he laid the foundation for. He did not see the payoff. That part is probably the most difficult.”
Will looks back as those years and sees his sister as becoming more self-motivated by the experience.
“She wasn’t waiting around for anyone to hand her anything,” he said.
The same holds true today. Given the pressure she could be feeling as Summitt’s replacement, Warlick is more uncomfortable with another aspect of her new role.
“The difficult thing right now with me is someone going with me or driving me somewhere or going to get my laundry out of the car,” she said. “That’s been difficult to let people wait on me.”
She laughed at the thought. Hard to imagine, unless you’re Warlick.
“It’s so hard; it’s been so hard,” she said. “It’s been like ‘wow.’ Because I’ve always done it. I’ve been doing it.”
The pride of Rocky Hill and Bearden High has her own idea about being driven.
“I think that competitive spirit she’s had all her life,” Will said. “The fire to win is still there. While she knows she’s not going to really fill Pat’s shoes, she’s determined to be successful.”