The alumni view is excited
When the Tennessee women’s basketball team begins its 2019-20 season on October 29, a lot will have changed since the team’s last game on March 23. Most conspicuously, for the first time since 1984, Holly Warlick will not be on the sideline. On March 27, athletic director Phillip Fulmer relieved Warlick of her duties as head coach after the team finished 19-13 (7-9 in the SEC) and lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Two weeks later, Fulmer hired Missouri State head coach Kellie Harper, who like Warlick was a Lady Vol player under legendary head coach Pat Summitt.
The Lady Vols will also have to replace a lot on the court after losing four players to graduation or transfer. Those four players included three starters, the team’s leading rebounder (Cheridene Green), and the team’s co-leading scorer (Evina Westbrook). Seven players return, but only three played more than 15 minutes per game last season, so there appear to be plenty of positional battles ahead in Knoxville.
Another new wrinkle for Tennessee is that, for the first time since 2007, Tennessee will play UConn, rekindling a rivalry that burned brightly under Summitt and current UConn head coach Geno Auriemma. The two schools agreed last August to resume the series with games at UConn next season and at Tennessee in 2020-21. (The rivalry’s future beyond 2020-21 is still uncertain.)
High Post Hoops spoke with several former Lady Vols and current WNBA players about the coaching change, Tennessee’s roster for next season, and the resumption of the series against UConn.
Warlick out, Harper in
Tennessee alumnae expressed mixed feelings about Fulmer’s personnel decisions. Current Connecticut Sun forward Shekinna Stricklen said of Warlick, “Great person. Great coach. She was amazing to me. … I hated how things ended.” Dallas Wings forward Glory Johnson echoed Stricklen: “I love Holly. It’s tough. I have … a whole lot of love for [former UT assistant coach] Dean Lockwood. So that one was a toughie for me. You know, as far as a developmental post coach, I’m a little biased, but I don’t know any better.”
At the same time, Stricklen and Johnson were both optimistic about Harper’s hire. Johnson called it “a good move” and suggested that the change “will be good for [the team].” Stricklen said she has not met Harper, but expects her to be a good hire because she played under Summitt. Seattle Storm center Mercedes Russell also emphasized what she called Harper’s “family ties.” Russell explained, “[Harper] was a player [at UT] and the history she has there is amazing, so I’m excited to see what she’s going to do with the program. I wish her nothing but the best.” And Cheridene Green, who graduated in May, thinks so highly of Harper that she wishes she could play another season at Tennessee: “I really love Kellie … She is very cool and genuine. I already feel like it is a family.” The buy-in that Harper has already received from these alumnae—and the benefit of the doubt she is likely getting from others as an alumna—bodes well for her ability to unify and develop the current roster.
Harper will have to wait several months for her first victory on the court, but she has already gotten a few wins on the recruiting trail with the signings of Australian freshman Jessie Rennie and junior college transfer Jaiden McCoy, who hails from Knoxville. McCoy is one of only two in-state players on the 2019-20 roster and the first player from Knoxville since Johnson, who graduated in 2012. Johnson called McCoy’s signing “a big deal” and said that, because Summitt influenced so many local high school coaches, “there should be more [players] coming out of Knoxville for sure.” Russell, an Oregon native, also referenced the program’s history when asked about McCoy: “It’s cool just to have somebody in their hometown representing Tennessee. … there’s thousands of girls that dream of going to that school just because of the history.”
However, the school’s history wasn’t enough to keep two players, rising junior Evina Westbrook and rising sophomore Mimi Collins, from transferring in the offseason. Westbrook expressed her discontent immediately after the team’s season-ending loss in the NCAA Tournament, telling reporters, “Steps need to be taken with our staff, and just overall, off-the-court, this team.” She soon entered her name in the transfer portal, ultimately picking the Lady Vols’ onetime rival, UConn. Collins announced a few weeks later that she would sign with Maryland, her home-state university. Their transfers leave the Lady Vols with only seven returning players and only six who have played in a game for UT. (Graduate transfer Lou Brown tore her ACL in the preseason last year and was granted an additional year of eligibility for 2019-20.)
When Johnson was asked about the coaching change, she suggested that the players—not the head coach—would be the most important factor in making the program elite again. She explained:
“For me, it’s not really [about] who’s the coach. It’s more of, who is going to respect the coach that is there, right? It doesn’t matter who the coach is, you know? People would work hard for Pat because she was Pat. When we were there, we worked hard for Holly because she was Holly. And we [were] trying to carry on Pat’s legacy. … So as much as the new coach should bring change, the players got to step up. The players got to step up and they also have to understand that even though Pat’s not there, you still have a job to do, and it’s for Pat. … players got to step up a little bit and take a little responsibility because it’s not about anybody else but Pat at that point.”
Rekindling the UConn rivalry
In contrast to their optimism about Harper, several alumnae had relatively tepid reactions to the renewed series with UConn. Stricklen said she was “glad to see it’s back now. I hate that I didn’t get to play them.” However, she said, “I don’t think it would ever be like the rivalry that it was the past.” There are many reasons, beyond the simple passage of time, why the rivalry might feel different in 2020 than it did in 2007, including Summitt’s death in 2016, UConn’s growing rivalry with Notre Dame, and Tennessee’s on-court decline from national champion in 2007 to No. 11 seed in the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
The rivalry will also look different than either side expected last summer because Westbrook will be in UConn blue rather than Tennessee orange. Former UConn and current Connecticut Sun forward Morgan Tuck quipped, “I kind of think the rivalry’s dead when you get a Tennessee transfer.” But she acknowledged the importance of the series for longtime fans of each team and added, “I think it’s still cool. It gets people excited.” Tuck welcomed the addition of Westbrook, telling High Post Hoops, “I want UConn to get the best player they can get, so I don’t care where they come from. I mean, I don’t know if I’d want them to come from Notre Dame, because that was my rival when I was there. But at the end of the day, I’m sure she’s a great player, and [Auriemma] knows what he’s doing, so it’ll be good.” Westbrook has the talent to be an impact player for the Huskies after averaging 14.9 points and 5.3 assists per game as a sophomore at Tennessee. But she may have to wait until 2020-21 to face her former team; the NCAA has yet to rule on her waiver application to be eligible immediately rather than having to sit out a season as a transfer.
Even though much is changing in Knoxville, UT alumnae still see continuity with the program they knew as players. The common thread, nearly a decade after she stepped down as head coach, is still Pat Summitt. “It’s still Lady Vols,” Shekinna Stricklen said, referencing Harper’s status as an alumna. “It’s different because Pat’s not there, and there’s never going to be another Pat, so I think that’s about the biggest thing.” Glory Johnson spoke similarly about Summitt’s absence and influence: “It doesn’t matter who the coach is in my opinion, but even though Pat’s not there, there’s still a legacy that you have to carry on.” Stricklen declared that Summitt’s legacy “lives forever” and reflected, “I’m honored and blessed to get to play for her. The discipline I learned from her, the leadership, you know, she stayed on me a lot to be more talkative. She really made a big impact on my life.”
Lady Vols fans everywhere hope that Harper is the right person to make that kind of impact on the next generation of players. It’s a difficult balancing act to teach Summitt’s principles while staying focused on the future and infusing new energy into a locker room that sorely needed it after last season. But Lady Vols alumnae are confident that passing the baton to another one of their own will pay off big for the program. Perhaps the new head coach can even restore the championship tradition of old on Rocky Top.
Love our 24/7 women’s basketball coverage? Join our Patreon now and support this work, while getting extra goodies and subscriber-only content for yourself.