If Phillip Fulmer took a moment to breathe a sigh of relief after landing a football coach back in December, his momentary lull is over. The new University of Tennessee athletics director has a new crisis on his hands.
The crescendo of criticism being heaped upon Lady Vols basketball coach Holly Warlick is growing, reaching a fever pitch after UT’s loss to Oregon State in the second round of the NCAA women’s tournament.
The program once feared throughout the Southeastern Conference and across America has set a lot of firsts under Warlick’s embattled tenure, not many of them positive. Two more firsts came in that March 18 loss to Oregon State: it marked the first time Tennessee had gone back-to-back years without advancing to the Sweet 16, and it marked the Lady Vols’ first NCAA Tournament loss at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Part of the problem for Tennessee is that it’s no longer the bully on the block. Parity has overtaken the women’s game, as it was bound to do. The Tennessees and Georgias and LSUs and Stanfords of women’s college basketball can no longer have it all to themselves.
And, yet, that parity doesn’t seem to have impacted Connecticut. The Huskies are undefeated, again, and in the Final Four, again.
Yes, part of the problem for Tennessee is parity. Part of the problem is also that Pat Summitt is, sadly, no longer patrolling the sideline.
Summitt, who lost her battle against early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in June 2016, engineered the women’s game, paving the way for not only Tennessee’s success but for the success of countless other women’s programs — like UConn and Oregon State.
It isn’t fair to hold Warlick, Summitt’s longtime assistant, to the precedents set by her former boss. No one was ever going to fill Summitt’s shoes. But it’s sad for Tennessee fans to watch the program that Summitt made so dominant, the program that she used to set so many milestones and shatter so many glass ceilings, relegated to also-ran status. With the parity in today’s game, it’s perhaps unfair to expect a Final Four appearance every season, the way Summitt used to do it. But it’s also impossible to watch Tennessee and not see a pattern of steady decline over the past six years.
Fulmer isn’t likely to act this season. Warlick will still be the Lady Vols’ coach when November rolls around. But at that point, Fulmer better be ready to act. Because with the Jeremy Pruitt hire behind him, it’s clear where his next major coaching fire and hire is going to have to be. Warlick herself made that clear when she lashed out at fans after the loss to Oregon State — usually the first sign that a coach under pressure is being to crack from the weight of that pressure. At this point, it isn’t a matter of if Fulmer is going to have to hire a new basketball coach, but when.
It’s interesting that Tennessee’s two basketball programs have such a different feel. The men’s program also ended its season in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It was also a disappointing exit, a loss to Loyola-Chicago, which has gone on to advance to the Final Four.
But the two programs feel worlds apart because they are worlds apart. They’re moving in different directions. Tennessee’s men overwhelmingly overachieved in 2017-2018. Picked to finish 13th in the 14-team SEC, they finished 13th in the nation, winning the SEC regular season title and earning a three-seed in a tournament they weren’t even supposed to be in. Tennessee’s women underachieved, with underwhelming wins against inferior opponents, mind-boggling losses to SEC foes like Alabama and LSU, and a blown 23-point lead against Notre Dame that perhaps better than anything else sums up the last six years, why fans are so anxious for change, and why Fulmer will have to provide it.