Former Lady Vols basketball head coach Holly Warlick has been the center of controversy this week, specifically the culture of her program during her last couple seasons as head coach.
On Wednesday night of this past week, the Connecticut women’s basketball program found out from the NCAA that their appeal for Tennessee transfer Evina Westbrook to play immediately this season had been denied. This came just a few weeks after Westbrook’s initial immediate eligibility waiver was denied by the NCAA.
After UConn’s win over Vanderbilt that night, head coach Geno Auriemma had some scathing remarks directed towards the Lady Vols and the culture under former head coach Holly Warlick.
“The thing I keep coming back to, if you read (the NCAA’s) release, the original one, (they said) ‘we think it’s kind of a normal situation.’ That’s what the (NCAA) said, ‘We kind of think it’s a normal situation,’ that it happens at a lot of campuses,” Auriemma said on Wednesday. “You know what? A lot of campuses should shut down their programs if that’s normal. That’s basically what this is. Say something else. Say anything. Don’t say that’s normal. That’s the word they used, ‘That’s normal.’”
On Thursday night, current Lady Vols head coach Kellie Harper responded to Auriemma’s comments by saying she and the Tennessee program are focused on the present, not the past. But on Friday, Tennessee’s “past” made her voice heard.
Warlick spoke with Mechelle Voepel of ESPNW.com on Friday, and she called Auriemma’s comments “crazy” and “not fair,” saying she takes offense to what he said about the Lady Vols.
“I hate for it to come to this, but nobody except the NCAA made the decision,” Warlick said Friday about the NCAA’s decision to deny Westbrook’s appeal. “To throw us under the bus, I think it’s kind of crazy.
“Tennessee is still a great program. Even me, after being let go, I can sit here and say that. To say it’s a bad program is not fair.”
Westbrook announced back in May that she would be transferring to UConn after spending two seasons at Tennessee under Warlick. The decision to enter the NCAA transfer portal came after the firing of Warlick. Westbrook put her name in the NCAA transfer portal before Harper was hired and decided to continue her transfer process after meeting with Harper.
Shortly after that, Westbrook announced she would be transferring to UConn, and the Huskies seemed confident she would be able to play this season. But the NCAA decided otherwise.
When asked what he meant by the situation at Tennessee not being “normal,” Auriemma failed to explain, simply saying, “I can’t get into that” when pressed for follow-up information.
“Think about this: A kid’s in an environment that’s not necessarily healthy, an environment that, if you knew what the environment was — which I can’t say — you would not want your kid in that environment,” Auriemma stated. “And the athletic director there (Phillip Fulmer) knows it, but he’s not going to support her leaving, which would have helped us a little bit.
“And now, her reward is she has to sit at home even when we travel and can’t play.”
Warlick didn’t take Auriemma’s insinuations too kindly.
“There are a lot of things we had to deal with last year, but I’m not putting all that out there publicly. But there are so many more layers than what I think Geno knows,” Warlick explained. “I don’t want to stir things up and go back and forth. But there are so many factors that went into last year
“We’ve produced a lot of not only great players but quality people from that program. It’s not too fair to say something like, ‘I wouldn’t let my daughter go there.’ There are two sides to every story. But nobody is going to talk about the details of it, so it’s probably best to let it go.”
Warlick went 172-67 in seven seasons as head coach of the Lady Vols, but the last three years were full of program lows and disappointment. Tennessee nearly missed out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history last season, and they finished the year with a losing record in the SEC for the first time ever.
Tennessee Athletics Director Phillip Fulmer announced UT and Warlick were parting ways in March of this year. Warlick spent nearly three decades with the Lady Vols as a player, assistant coach, and head coach.
The former Lady Vol head coach accepts responsibility for things declining under her watch, but she isn’t happy with the fact that Auriemma’s comments have gone beyond criticizing her.
“Listen, every program is going to have difficulties. I’m not going to say we didn’t, because we did. And bottom line, that’s on me,” Warlick said. “We needed to work them out, and it was a challenge. You could tell we had some problems because of how we played. We should have been achieving so much more.
“In the long run, it wasn’t a good fit for Evina and her family. It’s not always a great fit, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean the kid is a bad kid. We’ve had other kids transfer, too, like Mimi Collins [to Maryland]. I do take a little offense [to Auriemma’s remarks], but I can handle it toward me because I’ve had stuff thrown at me for the last seven years. But to have that thrown at the program is hard for me to swallow.”
The Lady Vols and UConn will face-off later this season in what will undoubtedly be a very heated match-up. When the two teams take the court on January 23rd, it will mark the first time since 2007 the bitter rivals have played.