For Kellie Harper, a Lady Vols jersey is sacrosanct

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

Anyone who pays even casual attention to college sports recruiting likely notices the social media photos that players post after taking a campus visit. The photos can be straightforward shots or artistically styled with one thing in common – images of players in assorted college jerseys. The exception is Tennessee women’s basketball.

Coach Kellie Harper doesn’t permit a recruit to wear an official Lady Vols jersey unless she commits to Tennessee. Sweatshirts, T-shirts, warm-up gear, jackets and even practice jerseys are on the selection rack as alternatives for photos. A visiting player can’t pick an official game day jersey unless she is ready to signal to the staff that she’s coming to Tennessee.

Jewel Spear on her visit.

Jewel Spear, who transferred to Tennessee last spring from Wake Forest after three seasons, had been through the recruiting process while in high school in The Colony, Texas. Her older brother, Kahliel Spears, just graduated from Robert Morris University and is headed overseas to play basketball. Her younger brother, who is now a high school sophomore, has earned an offer from the Vols basketball staff. So, she is very familiar with college recruiting and the requisite photo shoots. Harper explained her policy during the visit.

“It’s not common,” Jewel said. “When I heard that, I was like, ‘OK, it makes sense, especially a historic program like Tennessee.’ Some people take advantage of visits and going to places just to get the picture. If I didn’t want to commit, I would have still taken photos with the team and the coaches just without the jersey.”

But Jewel was ready to say yes and changed her plans to visit two other schools. Her father was on the visit with her, and she called her mother in Texas to relay her plans in a story that can be read in detail HERE.

“That’s how she committed,” Harper said. “She said she wanted to put that jersey on. She knew at that point what it meant. It means a lot. It means a lot to me.”

Tennessee hosted two other visitors last spring in Destinee Wells and Avery Strickland. Both of those players, who are from the Volunteer State, committed during the visit.

Wells is from Memphis and played three seasons at Belmont in Nashville. Strickland is from Knoxville and played one season at Pittsburgh before entering the transfer portal. Tennessee had recruited Strickland when she played at Farragut High School but didn’t have an available scholarship when she graduated in 2022. Thanks to the dual swinging doors of the transfer portal, Harper and her staff got Strickland on the second try.

Harper, then known as Kellie Jolly, played four years for the late Pat Summitt after graduating from White County High School in Sparta. After getting hired as the head coach in 2019, Harper said one of the things she was most looking forward to was having a Tennessee driver’s license again.

Initially, Strickland was nearly in awe when she enrolled at Tennessee and relayed to her mother, Anissa Strickland, every first event from team meeting to practice.

Avery Strickland plays in Venice during the team’s trip to Europe in June 2023. (Tennessee Athletics)

“I love Tennessee. I get it,” Harper said. “Sometimes I’m in the moment and very locked into what we’re doing daily, and she’s handling herself so well you forget that’s a part of her. Destinee Wells is a Tennessee kid, too. Obviously it’s a little bit different for Avery growing up here. It’s a big deal to put that jersey on period. It’s an even bigger deal when you’re in this state and you’re putting that jersey on.”

Jewel Spear, Destinee Wells, Kellie Harper and Avery Strickland as three of the newcomers first practice over the summer.

Clara Silva, a 6-6 post from Portugal, visited four schools last week, including Tennessee. She posted her visit photos wearing game jerseys at three schools, Virginia Tech, Louisville and Maryland, and a practice jersey at Tennessee with the hashtag #notcommitted. Silva is an intriguing recruit with size, paint and passing skills and the ability to shoot. She also turned heads over the summer with her performance in the European Championship.

The no-jersey photo unless a player commits was a policy that Harper put in place when she got the job. Eagle-eyed Lady Vols fans have learned to scour recruits’ social media photos after a visit to see if any show a jersey.

“You don’t just get to come on this campus and put the jersey on,” Harper said. “That’s just not how we do it. It means too much. You turn on social media and you see some of these players that are going to 20-30 schools, and they’re putting jerseys on at every school and at some point it’s got to mean something.

“It’s just different here. It’s different here, and I hope that our prospects respect that. I’ll be honest with you, I hope our alums respect that. I know I would. You put that jersey on, you played here, it means something. It’s just a little different. I want it to feel different for our players and for our recruits. It’s a special place.”

Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at MoxCar Marketing + Communications since 2013, started her journalism career at the Knoxville News Sentinel and began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *