CloseMechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — There are still moments when Tennessee coach Kellie Harper feels a sense of disbelief sneak up on her.
“The funny thing is this one has gotten me a couple of times,” said Harper, who coached her first official home game at her alma mater on Thursday, a 63-36 victory against Central Arkansas. “It’s when someone introduces me, and they say, ‘And the head women’s basketball coach for the Lady Vols: Kellie Harper.’ And I think, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s me.'”
Harper is doing something that would come with risk even for a program that doesn’t have the immense history of an eight-time NCAA champion. She has returned to her alma mater to try to help the Lady Vols recapture the swagger they were long known for — and to do it with her system and personality.
Harper is just getting started, and there’s reason to believe she is exactly what the Lady Vols need: an energetic, charismatic coach who knows as well as anyone what this program has meant to women’s basketball but also recognizes that it must evolve with the times.
It was 21 years ago this month that Harper — then Kellie Jolly — started her senior season at Thompson-Boling Arena as Tennessee was coming off its third consecutive national championship, having gone 39-0. The Lady Vols program and coach Pat Summitt were at their zenith.
The Kellie Harper era at Tennessee is off to a 2-0 start. The former Lady Vol guard and three-time NCAA champ represents the best of what was and the hope of what Tennessee can be again. Lynn/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images
But Duke upset Tennessee in the Elite Eight that 1998-99 season, and Harper ended her playing career collapsed in tears in Summitt’s arms as she exited the game. Then she went off on the path to become a coach.
First were stops at Auburn and Chattanooga as an assistant. In 2004-05, she became head coach at Western Carolina. In 2009, she had her first tenure as legend replacement, taking over for the late Kay Yow at NC State. An athletic director change contributed to that being just a four-year stay. After she was let go by the Wolfpack in 2013, Harper went to Missouri State, a traditionally strong mid-major.
Did she ever entertain thoughts of what it might be like to return to Tennessee?
“I really did not, and I think it’s because this was Pat’s job,” Harper said. “And it was going to be Pat’s job forever. You didn’t envision anyone else coaching here. It wasn’t even a fleeting thought.”
But as fate would have it, Harper has come back home. On Thursday, she wore a dark-orange dress that she acknowledged wasn’t exactly the right shade.
“Finding Tennessee orange in coaching attire is really difficult,” she said with a smile. “This was as close as I could get. I haven’t had any time to go shopping. But I was out and about, walked in a shop, and something caught my eye, and it was kind of orange. I looked at that piece and another piece, and the lady said, ‘You must really love orange.’ Yes. Yes, I do.”
It has been a whirlwind for Harper and her husband and assistant coach, Jon Harper, since she was picked in April to replace Holly Warlick, who replaced Summitt in the spring of 2012.
Through caring for two young children, moving, recruiting, meeting a new team, engaging with a fan base eager to reconnect with her, fulfilling media responsibilities and maybe trying to just live life a little, Harper has had to take a few deep breaths and think about Summitt.
“In this position, you’re constantly needed in so many ways,” Harper said. “And I’m oftentimes reminded of seeing Pat walk through a crowd and addressing everyone. They adored her, and they all just wanted a little piece of her.
“I watched how gracious and graceful she was with that. It’s inspiring, and it’s also comforting to know she did it, and she did it the best of anybody. Not that I’m trying to be Pat Summitt, but it was a way for me to learn how she handled all of that.”
Harper knows there won’t be another Summitt, just as Warlick knew it. Trying to replicate one of the most iconic, respected and inspirational figures in the history of college sports is not possible. Yet, of course, Harper wants to keep alive the spirit of her former coach, who died in 2016 after a heart-wrenching battle with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, that was devastating to not just Tennessee but also the entire women’s basketball world.
When Warlick became head coach in 2012, Harper’s only thought was support for her.
“I played for Holly and loved Holly,” Harper said. “I wanted her to succeed because I love this program and wanted it to win.”
Tennessee freshman guard Jordan Horston scored a game-high 17 points, hitting seven of nine shots and adding five rebounds, three assists and two blocks. Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire
Warlick’s seven seasons at Tennessee included three trips to the Elite Eight along with some stunning losses, especially at home, while fellow SEC programs such as South Carolina and Mississippi State elevated to national elite status. The Gamecocks won the NCAA title in 2017.
Last season, a crushing home loss to a struggling Vanderbilt team, followed not long after by an NCAA tournament first-round loss, ended Warlick’s Tennessee career. She had persevered through so much: Summitt’s illness and death, an acrimonious athletic department merger that cost some of her longtime colleagues and friends their jobs, and an attempt by former athletic director Dave Hart to essentially get rid of the Lady Vol logo and brand name.
People admired how Warlick handled herself, but it was time for Tennessee to make a coaching change. Harper would have been on the list anyway, but her Missouri State team’s run to the Sweet 16 seemed like serendipity.
Tennessee is her dream job, of course, but it’s also a major undertaking. Her to-do list — large as it was in her previous jobs — is at another level here.
Harper exists as a duality to a lot of Lady Vol fans, with her past and present selves both so important to them. They loved her as the native Tennessee kid from Sparta — about halfway between Knoxville and Nashville — who exemplified what it meant to be a Lady Vol. Harper battled back from an ACL injury her sophomore year, when Tennessee lost 10 games but won the national championship. She was gritty, tough and smart.
Tennessee fans want to tell her stories of their recollections — about her, Summitt and that time when the Lady Vols were on top of the world. She’s happy to listen, but she knows that world is different now. There are so many good teams. Tennessee has the highest of standards, but Harper — overseeing a team that lost three starters and has six newcomers, four of them freshmen — needs time to establish herself.
It is a balancing act. She knows she represents the best of what was and the hopes of what will be.
“I’ve loved everywhere I’ve been, the universities I’ve worked for,” Harper said. “But it’s just different when it’s your alma mater. There’s a different passion. That love for a university just means something more when it’s yours.
“There are times that I will refer back to the tradition of this program with our players. Maybe during a practice, in a film session, when I’m meeting with them one-on-one. I’ll make a reference to what came before, give them a little bit of history.”
Summitt did the same thing.
“She’d bring back alums, and they would tell stories,” Harper said. “I think we had a very healthy respect for the history, but I never felt like she threw it in our faces. I don’t know if that’s the right way to say that … I just mean I always felt that we were our own team, but we were so educated about the tradition and how many had laid that foundation.”
Time is relentless, and it moves faster than we realize. It doesn’t seem like all that long ago that Kellie Jolly was the point guard with French braids wearing No. 14 for Tennessee. Now she’s 42, and her son, Jackson, who turns 6 this month, wears a No. 14 jersey as he joins the Lady Vols in warm-ups.
He started doing that at age 3, Harper said, when she was at Missouri State. It was really cute then. It’s even more special to her now.
“There’s something a little different about my son wearing 14 on our court,” said Harper, whose 17-month-old daughter, Kiley, likely will join her brother in warm-ups before long. “It’s kind of cool. It’s an unbelievable place to be, and I’m so happy that they get to grow up in it.”