Vol fans don’t like him. At all. He’s one of the biggest Vol nemeses over the last decade or so. But Geno Auriemma has some thoughts on the Lady Vols’ search for a new head coach, and he shared them recently.
Prior to the UConn women’s basketball team’s NCAA Tournament games last week, head coach Auriemma met with the media. Tennessee had just recently announced their decision to part ways with Holly Warlick as head coach of the Lady Vols basketball team, and Auriemma was prodded for his thoughts on their decision and their search.
And in typical Auriemma fashion, he wasn’t afraid to share his honest feelings on the matter.
“I think if they make the right decision and the right person gets in that job, it won’t take long for them to be back where they were,” Auriemma said according to The Hastings Tribune. “But their fan base is a lot like ours. They’re impatient. They want everything right now. There’s not going to be a lot of patience for whoever the next person is, so they’re going to have to be great right away.
“But when you have the tradition that they have and you have the fan base that they have and the resources that are available to them, I don’t think it’s going to take very long at all.”
Whoever is hired to lead the Lady Vols’ program will only be the third head coach of Tennessee’s women’s basketball team over the last 45 years. Pat Summitt, of course, was the head coach for the vast majority of that, and she became an icon in the sport. But Holly Warlick served as the Lady Vols’ head coach the last seven years after taking over for Summitt when she stepped down due to her diagnosis of early onset dementia.
Summitt won eight national titles as head coach of the Lady Vols, and she took the Lady Vols to 18 Final Fours. She won the SEC regular season title 16 times and won the conference tournament title 16 times as well.
Replacing Summitt was never going to be easy, but Warlick had the unique distinction of being Summitt’s assistant for two decades before being promoted to head coach. For her, living in Summitt’s shadow was an every day thing.
But, as it turns out, it was even more difficult to manage once she took over the reigns of the program.
Warlick was let go as head coach of the Lady Vols after this year’s team stumbled to one of the worst seasons in program history. Tennessee finished with a 19-13 overall record and a 7-9 record in SEC play. This year marked the first time in UT history the Lady Vols failed to be at least .500 in conference play. They also lost to Vanderbilt in Knoxville for the first time ever, and it was to a Vanderbilt squad that finished with only two SEC wins.
Not only that, but the Lady Vols barely snuck into the NCAA Tournament, earning the first double-digit seed in school history (11-seed). The Lady Vols lost in the first round to UCLA, marking only the second time ever UT had failed to win a game in the tournament.
Auriemma, who’s created his own legendary status at UConn, said he understands the pressure Warlick felt and the unique position she and the Lady Vol program were in.
“Pat left a big shadow,” Auriemma stated. “So it wasn’t easy from day one to do that job. And then, you know, you add the pressure of what’s expected at a place like Tennessee and the fact that everybody else has gotten better, and it’s much more difficult to recruit the same players that were being recruited back then.
“You add it all up, and it’s not easy.”
The Lady Vols haven’t made it back to the Final Four since they won their last title in 2008. Since then, they’ve appeared in five Elite Eights but haven’t even made it that far since 2016.
But Ariemma’s right about how quickly it should take the next head coach to have success. It shouldn’t take too long at all.
Assuming nobody transfers, the Lady Vols will have at least six former McDonald’s All-Americans on their roster next season, and they’ll be welcoming in another strong recruiting class as well. The talent on the roster shouldn’t be the issue at all with next year’s team, no matter who the coach is.
There are many other factors to consider, of course, but with that talent and the facilities UT has, the Lady Vols’ program shouldn’t long to rebound.
Tennessee and UConn haven’t played in women’s basketball in quite some time, but it was announced last offseason that the two would be renewing their rivalry with a new home-and-home series. Ariemma joked that depending on who Tennessee hires, he may want to play the Lady Vols more after those two games, or he may want the rivalry to be put on hold once again.
“We have a two-year contract with them. I think depending on who the coach is, we may play them 10 more times, or we may not play them at all,” Ariemma said. “I’m anxious to see who the coach is because it may only be two years, maybe one. I may try to get out of it next year.”