When Kellie Harper stepped off a private plane and onto a tarmac in Knoxville, she knew exactly what expectations awaited at Tennessee. Final Fours. National titles.
The former Lady Vol basketball player and native of Sparta, Tennessee, had been away from her alma mater for 20 years after starting her career in women’s college basketball as an administrative assistant shortly after graduation in 1999. She worked her way into assistant coach roles and then led her own programs as a head coach at Western Carolina, N.C. State and Missouri State. On April 10, 2019, UT Athletics sent its plane to Springfield, Missouri, to bring Harper and her family to Knoxville for her introductory media conference.
“Everyone knows that the University of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball program is great and historic, but not everyone knows what it is like to be in it, what it is like to put that jersey on and play for something so much bigger than yourself,” Harper said that day. “I do understand the gravity of this position, and I am humbled, honored and I am ready to take on this journey. The Lady Vols program has many responsibilities to this university, community, the state, and to be quite honest with you, all of women’s basketball.”
When UT Athletics conducted the first coaching search in the history of Lady Vols basketball in March 2019, the former point guard who had won three national championships at Tennessee appeared on a short list to replace Holly Warlick, who had followed Pat Summitt in 2012 after the iconic coach was compromised by dementia.
Harper led Missouri State to a series of upsets in the 2019 NCAA women’s basketball tourney to reach the Sweet 16 and nearly beat national powerhouse Stanford in the Elite Eight. Her timing was impeccable, and Harper shot to the top of Tennessee’s list.
Since Harper arrived at Tennessee, the Lady Vols are now regulars in the top 25 poll and have finished in the top three of the competitive SEC each season. In ESPN’s way-too-early top 25 poll released this June for the 2022-23 season, Tennessee landed at No. 4 in the country.
Despite a roster gutted by injury last season, Tennessee reached its first Sweet 16 berth in six years. In the offseason, Harper added a slew of talent through the transfer portal with four new players, including former high school McDonald’s All Americans Rickea Jackson, a 6-2 wing, and Jillian Hollingshead, a 6-5 post. In three years – and despite a pandemic that disrupted sports and in-person recruiting for a newly hired head coach trying to retool one of the most-storied programs in basketball into a national contender – the Lady Vols have gone from a bubble selection for the 64-team NCAA tourney field in 2019 to a women’s Final Four favorite in 2023.
Tennessee means pressure to win. Harper knows that. She knows what’s at stake for a head coach. She lived it on the court as a player. She can convey to her team that the pressure to win a national championship can either crush or forge a player.
“You better want it, you better want it deep inside yourself,” Harper said in an interview with Knox TN Today. “Because otherwise if people outside of you want it more than you, that’s a problem. And so many people want it, they want it in Tennessee, and that’s what makes this place so special that our fans are so passionate, and they’re right in there with us through every step of the way.
“The offseason, they’re hanging on every social media post that we have. It’s what makes it so special, but you have to understand it’s just different at Tennessee. It is different at Tennessee. There are more eyes on you at the University of Tennessee. There will be a lot of commentary. Most of it is going to be very positive, and some of it’s going to be negative, and you’ve got to handle both. And like I’ve said a lot, you’ve just got to put your head down and move forward.”
That advice applies to Harper as well. She knows the spotlight is on Tennessee, and fans are invested in every outcome from games to recruiting. With a 2022-23 roster at the max with 15 scholarships players, along with one walk-on – the largest for the Lady Vols in more than 15 years – Harper now has a lot of options. She already has acknowledged that managing a roster of that size will be a challenge. Summitt expanded her roster in the early 2000s after injuries piled up and then vowed to never do it again because of the discontent created among the team over playing time.
“The way I handle expectations, I just try to do my job the best I can do it each and every day,” Harper said. “I know that probably sounds oversimplified, but that’s how I approach it. What do I have to do today to be the best I can be so that our team and program can be the best we can be? I don’t claim to get it right every day. I do not. No one’s perfect, and people are going to make mistakes, but I do try every single day to get it right.
“I’m very intentional about every single decision that I make. I don’t make any decisions lightly. Because I know every move that we make could be extremely impactful on our program’s success. I love what I do, and I’m confident at what I do and because of those things, because I do try, I’m OK with not being perfect, I can lay my head down at night and sleep. I don’t stay up all night agonizing over decisions or what I should have done or what I could have done.
“I just know I’m going to do the best I can possibly do, and I’m going to move on. That’s how I tackle life. To be honest with you, that was my dad, kind of Pat Summitt as well. Whatever’s in front of you today, you’ve got to handle it, and you’ve got to move on. You just try to keep it pretty simple.”
Harper changed team culture last season and had players unified and pulling for each other without watching awards lists, points and minutes played. The social media accounts showed how well the players interacted – and Harper with them – and resonated with recruits, and, perhaps more importantly, parents.
Harper also is fortunate because she has a motivated team. Her players understand the significance of becoming the first team to win a national championship at Tennessee since 2008.
“I think the players that are here are here because they want to be part of a championship,” Harper said. “They want to be part of a team that gets to hang a banner. That’s why they’re here. And that’s a good starting place.”
Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at Moxley Carmichael since 2013, 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. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.