Fulmer: 'It stings to make this decision' but Warlick had to go

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- It’s the end of an era for the Lady Vols.

WVLT sports contributor and ESPN writer Chris Low confirms Tennessee has parted ways with head coach, longtime assistant and legendary player Holly Warlick.

The news broke on Wednesday afternoon with a statement from the university following soon after.

Phillip Fulmer said, "Holly and I met this afternoon, and I informed her of the decision to change leadership within the program." According to Low, the two met on Monday, but there was no resolution. She was notified officially on Wednesday that UT would be moving on.

"Holly has dedicated most of her adult life to the University of Tennessee and the Lady Vols program. She loves Tennessee, and Tennessee needs to always love her back. She was front and center as this program developed into the model for women's intercollegiate excellence."

"While it certainly stings to make this decision," Fulmer said, "I am charged with doing what I believe is best for this storied program. It's important to all of us that Lady Vols basketball maintains its status among the elite."

From Bearden High School track star to three time All-American on the hardwood playing for the Lady Vols, to associate head coach under one of the greatest collegiate head coaches of all time, Holly Warlick has quite the resume. Warlick was, according to UT's profile of her, the first player in the history of UT athletics to have her jersey retired at the end of her career.

She was named to the U.S. Olympic Team in 1980. In 1994, she was inducted into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame. In 2001, she was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame; she was inducted into the Lady Vol Hall of Fame in 2002, and she was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.

It's no wonder Pat Summitt chose Warlick as her successor when she handed over one of the best basketball programs in the modern era.

On April 18, 2012, Pat Summitt handed the whistle over to Warlick as she stepped down due to medical concerns. Summitt passed away in 2016.

Warlick started off hot winning the 2013 regular season championship then winning the 2014 SEC Tournament championship. The Lady Vols added another regular season title in 2015. Like Pat Summitt, Warlick's style was tough but efficient as she sent eleven players to the WNBA Draft including Diamond DeShields, Mercedes Russell, Isabelle Harrison, Ariel Massengale, Isabelle Harrison and Cierra Burdick.

Even in the classroom, Holly and her staff continued the tradition of graduating 100% of her players that came through the program.

After a 30-win season in 2014, things began to decline for the program. The team hasn't finished better than 4th place in the SEC since the 2015-2016 season. Which, in the case of Lady Vol Basketball, is something out of the norm for a program that never finished below 5th place under Pat Summitt.

The 2018-2019 season was the tipping point for Holly's tenure as head coach. The team went on a six-game losing streak in the middle of the season and were immediately recognized as a team that might not make the NCAA Women's Tournament. After finding some rhythm following the losing streak, the Lady Vols then dropped three straight games before winning in the season finale against Ole Miss finishing the season 19-12 (7-9 SEC).

After the Lady Vols fell to UCLA, Warlick spoke to media, saying, "Do I want to continue coaching? Yes, but if it needs to go in a different direction, that's not up to me."

Lady Vols guard Evina Westbrook spoke to media as well, saying, "Steps need to be taken with our staff."

On March 27 at around 3:30 p.m., Phillip Fulmer was seen entering the Ray and Lucy Hand studio, where UT officials normally host press conferences.

Lady Vol Athletics Director Emeritus, Joan Cronan, declined to comment on the situation.

The program will be searching for its third head coach in the modern era of Women's basketball. A report suggested that the coach search could lead to Louisville; however, the head coach of their women's basketball program, Jeff Walz, said on March 27, before the announcement of Warlick's departure, that "Their job's not open. I'm not gonna worry about that, and we're gonna focus on our basketball team."

The release said assistant coach Dean Lockwood will maintain "operational oversight" until a hire is made.

The university has not announced anything about Warlick's contract, which was set to continue until 2022. But the Lady Vols Basketball Twitter released a statement along with a tribute video saying, "Three decades of service to the University of Tennessee. A Lady Vol for life."

Fans reacted after the announcement, one Twitter user said Warlick "gave her life to Tennessee. Change has to happen but please let us respect her."

Coaching possibilities

Despite his denials, Walz is still a possibility for the vacancy. Walz began coaching Louisville in 2007, and his team is the current no. 1 seed, and they made the Final Four last year. This season, his team is 31-3. So far, his career is 322-97 at Louisville. Low said Walz has a $1.5 million buyout.

Missouri State head coach Kellie Jolly Harper is another possibility. She played for the Lady Vols as a guard and was a major part of the 3-in-a row national championships the team had in the mid-90s. They play Stanford in the Sweet 16 on Saturday.

For all things coaching search, follow WVLT for continuous updates