Now that Holly Warlick has been let go, Tennessee will have its first coaching search of the modern era of women’s basketball.
Holly Warlick succeeded Pat Summitt as the Tennessee women’s basketball coach in 2012. Warlick played for Summitt from 1976 to 1980.
When Tennessee lost in the first round in 2009, it was a stunner. But Saturday’s loss to UCLA was hardly a surprise in an up-and-down season.
Pat Summitt was hired fresh out of college in 1974, with no fanfare, but went on to win eight NCAA titles and become a sports legend. When she had to leave coaching following the 2011-12 season because of early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, she was replaced by Warlick, Summitt’s longtime assistant and former player.
Whom will Tennessee hire to replace Warlick? It’s a brand-new era for Tennessee, which might mean the school considers hiring a male coach.
Will the administration look for a coach with any ties to Summitt or someone outside the “Lady Vols family” who has had success elsewhere? Here’s a look at nine possible candidates, listed in alphabetical order.
Michelle Clark-Heard, Cincinnati head coach, age 50
She’s in her first season with the Bearcats, and it is impressive. She went 20-9 overall and 12-4 in the American Athletic Conference with a program that has struggled to be competitive. Cincinnati has defeated Youngstown State and Minnesota in the WNIT and faces Butler on Thursday. She had six successful seasons at Western Kentucky, where she won at least 22 games each year and made four NCAA tournament appearances. Clark-Heard was also a head coach at Kentucky State from 2005 to ’07 and was on Jeff Walz’s staff as an assistant at Louisville from 2007 to ‘2012, which included the Cardinals’ 2009 trip to the Final Four. When she came to Cincinnati, Clark-Heard signed a six-year deal worth $400,000 in base salary per season.
Brenda Frese, Maryland head coach, age 48
She’s in her 17th season with the Terps, the No. 3 seed in the Albany Regional who were upset by No. 6 UCLA on Monday. Frese led Maryland to the 2006 NCAA title and the 2014 and ’15 Final Fours. Her Maryland team came into the Big Ten in 2014-15 and immediately became the league’s best, as the Terps have won or tied for the regular-season title four of the five years they’ve been in the league. Frese signed a deal in 2013 that carries through at least 2021, with rollover possibilities through 2025. Frese is reported to make $1.19 million per season. She got her 500th career victory in January.
Gail Goestenkors, age 56
The former Duke and Texas head coach has been out of college coaching since she resigned from her position with the Longhorns in 2012. But she remains involved with the sport, as a WNBA assistant in Los Angeles and Indiana, as a broadcaster and for the past year as a coaching consultant. Word is that Goestenkors might want to return to the sideline, and her experience at both the college and the pro levels makes her an intriguing candidate. She made Duke a powerhouse, going 396-99 in 15 seasons from 1992 to 2007. Goestenkors had a friendly relationship with Summitt, too, even though she and Duke handed Tennessee one of its most painful losses in the 1999 Elite Eight, when the Lady Vols were going for a four-peat. Goestenkors did not win an NCAA title, but she took Duke to the Final Four on four occasions.
Kellie Harper, Missouri State head coach, age 41
She has very strong ties to the Lady Vols, starting at point guard for their national championship teams in 1996, ’97 and ’98. She is also the only native of Tennessee on this list; her hometown is Sparta. Harper was first a head coach at Western Carolina (2004-2009). She has experience with the difficulties of trying to follow a legend, as she took over at NC State in 2009 after Kay Yow’s death. Harper was let go after the 2013 season after she went 70-64 and 23-39 in the ACC, with one NCAA tournament appearance. Harper then went to Missouri State, where she is in her sixth season and making her second NCAA tournament appearance. The Lady Bears won the Missouri Valley tournament title and now are the lowest seed left in the NCAA tournament, as the Chicago Regional’s No. 11 seed after upsetting No. 3 Iowa State on Monday. Harper is signed through April 2021 with a base salary of $246,640 per year.
Niele Ivey, Notre Dame assistant coach, age 41
She’s one of the top assistants in the game for one of the top programs, and her name has come up in head-coaching searches for years. Might this be the year she decides to move up? Ivey is in her 12th season at her alma mater, having won a national championship with the Irish as a player in 2001 and as an assistant last season. She’s known as not just one of the top recruiters in the country but also one of the best guard mentors for players such as WNBA stars Skylar Diggins-Smith and Jewell Loyd, plus current Notre Dame standouts Arike Ogunbowale and Jackie Young. Tennessee might not be willing to hand the reins to someone who hasn’t been a head coach, but if it considers an assistant, Ivey should be at the top of the list.
Felisha Legette-Jack, Buffalo head coach, age 52
Legette-Jack is in her seventh season at Buffalo, and she led the Bulls to the Sweet 16 last year. They also gave UConn a run for its money in the NCAA second round this season. The Bulls have gone to the NCAA tournament three times under Legette-Jack, who was a head coach at Hofstra for four seasons and at Indiana for six. Legette-Jack is a Syracuse native and has seemed happy in her home state of New York, but Tennessee could probably lure anyone. She signed a five-year contract in May 2018 with an annual salary of $240,000 per year.
Wes Moore, NC State head coach, age 61
He’s well known to Lady Vols fans, having coached at Maryville College in Tennessee from 1987 to ’93 and at Chattanooga from 1998 to 2013. Chattanooga was a perennial Southern Conference power under Moore, making eight NCAA tournament appearances. He’s currently in his sixth season at NC State, and the Wolfpack, the Greensboro Regional’s No. 3 seed, are in the Sweet 16, despite losing four players to knee injuries this season. He’s the oldest of these candidates, but his success speaks for itself, and his longtime ties to the state of Tennessee could be a benefit. Moore also makes much less than fellow candidates Jeff Walz, Vic Schaefer and Frese; he’s signed through 2020 at $460,000 annually.
Vic Schaefer, Mississippi State head coach, age 58
He has had remarkable success in seven years in Starkville, reaching the past two national championship games and being the No. 1 seed in the Portland Regional this year. His team won the SEC regular-season title the past two years and the SEC tournament title — for the first time in program history — this year. Like Walz, Schaefer has not won an NCAA title as a head coach but has as an assistant with Texas A&M in 2012. Schaefer signed a contract extension last summer for four years with an average salary of $1,596,000 per year. From Tennessee’s standpoint, to be frank, hiring Schaefer would mean getting a top coach for the Lady Vols while taking one from one of the SEC rivals.
Jeff Walz, Louisville head coach, age 47
He has taken the Cardinals to three Final Fours, and they’re a No. 1 seed in the Albany Regional this year. He hasn’t won an NCAA title as a head coach but did as an assistant with Maryland in 2006. Walz, in his 12th season at Louisville, had his contract extended last June through 2025, so he would come with a contract buyout. Beyond that, he’s already making considerably more than Warlick ($1.475 million to $690,000), so he’ll cost more, too. He has connected well with Louisville fans. Could he do the same trying to follow Summitt in the hearts and minds of the Tennessee faithful? Some believe him to be the leading candidate to succeed Warlick.
Could Tennessee look outside of college coaching? Two names that will be brought up are NBA assistant Becky Hammon and broadcaster Kara Lawson, both former WNBA players.
Hammon, an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs, has never coached at the college level and appears to be on track for a possible NBA head-coaching job, which would be a historic breakthrough for women coaches. It’s hard to see her giving up that possibility for Tennessee, a place to which she has no ties.
Lawson is beloved by the fan base and is known for her keen eye for strategy as a former Tennessee point guard. She’s very involved with her alma mater but has not coached before. Would Tennessee choose her, if she were interested, over people with many years of experience coaching and recruiting?