For years, when folks thought about the University of Tennessee two things immediately came to mind — football and Lady Vols basketball.

Of course we know that the those two programs have waned in recent years.

After a series of bad coaching hires, football appears to be on the way back to relevancy.

The Lady Vols, on the other hand, have seen their performance consistently decline over the last several years under Holly Warlick, who took over for the legendary Pat Summitt in 2012.

On Saturday, the Lady Vols failed to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2008-09 season (the only time they failed to advance to the second round under Summitt). They also failed to win at least 20 games for the first time since the 1975-76 season.

It’s clear the program is heading in the wrong direction. And while it was going to be impossible for Warlick to live up to standards that Summitt set (there will never be another Pat Summitt), the results are still not good enough for her to continue her role as the Lady Vols’ head coach.

Even some of Warlick’s player seem to agree, which is rare to hear in a situation like this (which, admittedly, can be awkward for players).

Evina Westbrook was quite candid on Saturday when discussing changes that need to be made in the program. Westbrook, who averaged just under 15 points per game this season, specifically mentioned changes in the coaching staff that need to happen.

It’s obvious the whole program is a mess right now. When you start to get these kinds of candid comments from players, it’s usually over for the head coach. A fresh start is almost always needed to right the ship.

But while I think Warlick needs to go, I think fans should laud her efforts at Tennessee. As a former player at UT, Warlick bleeds orange. She loves the program and the university deeply.

And even though Warlick knows her time with the program is likely coming to an end, she’s still an ambassador for the University of Tennessee.

Learn from the past mistakes of other prestigious programs

When I think about the current state of the Lady Vols, I’m reminded of UNC’s men’s basketball program in the late 90’s/early 2000’s.

The Tar Heels were in a similar situation. Legendary head coach Dean Smith stepped down in 1997 and handed the reigns of the program to longtime assistant Bill Guthridge.

In turn, Guthridge coached UNC for three seasons and led the program to two Final Four appearances, which is reminiscent of Warlick’s first few seasons as the Lady Vols’ head coach (UT had three Elite Eight appearances in Warlick’s first four years).

Guthridge, however, stepped down after his third season and the Tar Heels hired Matt Doherty to take over.

Doherty was a former UNC player who was young and energetic. But he didn’t have much experience. It was a huge misstep by the Tar Heels.

In Doherty’s second season, UNC won only eight games, which ended a streak of 20 win seasons that dated back to 1970. It was an awful season for any program, let alone a blue blood program like North Carolina.

UNC’s bad decisions created a 5-6 year “dark period” for Tar Heel basketball.

If the Lady Vols don’t fix their current situation, they could be on the same path. And the dark period could last even longer than 5-6 years.

Tennessee should learn from UNC’s mistakes. Retaining Warlick, despite the fact that she’s deeply loyal to UT, would likely send the program into an irreversible tailspin.

And that’s something that absolutely can’t happen.

Featured image via Saul Young-USA TODAY Sports