Second-ever coaching search starts for Lady Vols

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

A lot can happen in seven days.

A week ago this column focused on the Lady Vols entering the offseason after a brutal loss in basketball.

On Monday, Danny White fired coach Kellie Harper after five seasons on the day her buyout was sliced in half, a top-rated commit reopened her recruitment, a transfer portal guard had her visit canceled and Tennessee launched its second coaching search in Lady Vols basketball history.

The first came in 2019 when then-Athletics Director Phillip Fulmer fired Holly Warlick, who like Harper was a former Lady Vols point guard. The second is underway now by White, whose full title is vice chancellor/director of athletics.

Tennessee has signaled its intention to operate in stealth and make a big splash.

“I will begin an aggressive search process to find the next leader for our iconic women’s basketball program,” White said in a statement released by Tennessee. “To protect the integrity of this process, you will not hear from me until we are ready to announce our new head coach.”

Danny White and UT Chancellor Donde Plowman.

A third former Lady Vol point guard is a current head coach in Kara Lawson, but the emotional wringer of letting go of two beloved Tennessee players likely will stop that pipeline to “The Summitt.” Lawson has found success at Duke, and her team reached the Sweet 16 this season.

Harper reached the Sweet 16 in 2022, the first for the Lady Vols in six years, and 2023. Tennessee’s 2023-24 season ended in the second round of the NCAA tourney to NC State, which is coached by Wes Moore, a longtime friend of Kellie and Jon Harper, who had served as his assistants at Chattanooga.

A “home run hire” would need a better resume than Sweet 16s. That resume would leave fans wondering why a coach with equivalent success was removed from the position.

Media-generated lists have included Moore – his team took out Stanford and Texas to reach this year’s Final Four – LSU coach Kim Mulkey, who has won four national titles at two schools; Louisville coach Jeff Walz, who reached the Final Four in 2022; South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who has won two national titles; and Southern Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb, who made it to the Elite Eight and has one of the most electrifying guards in the country in freshman JuJu Watkins, who was just named to the 10-player Wooden Award All American Team and is one of five finalists for national player of the year. Other names being mentioned include UCLA coach Cori Close and Oklahoma coach Jennie Baranczyk.

However, lists are educated guesses and coaching searches are done in the shadows. If the intent is to swing for the fences and hit a home run, to mix sports metaphors, that’s also a short list and time is of the essence.

April is the first month in 2024 with showcase events for high school recruits – it starts in two weeks – and a new head coach and staff will need to be in place as quickly as possible to be in attendance. That accelerates the timeline to get a coach hired within the next week.

White met with Harper on Monday and told her the program was going in a different direction. The coach was blindsided by the decision as Harper and her staff were scheduling visits from players in the portal and meeting with players that afternoon, and Jewel Spear had just announced on Sunday evening that she was coming back for a fifth year. The process of preparing for recruiting and next season all came to a sudden halt.

Coach Kellie Harper, a veteran of Tennessee-Vandy matchups, talks to Jewel Spear, who was playing in her first one. (Tennessee Athletics)

By parting ways with Harper on April 1, the university was able to trim $2 million off of her buyout. Harper will now receive $500,000 a year for four years instead of $1 million a year. If Harper is interested in returning to coaching, she would be on hiring boards. While she didn’t get enough wins at Tennessee, she came closer to anyone this season in toppling still undefeated South Carolina and has the acumen to stay in the profession.

Ruby Whitehorn, a 5-11 sophomore guard and high school All-American who had entered the portal out of Clemson after her coach got fired, was going to visit Tennessee on Monday but she and her family hastily had the trip canceled when Harper was fired. That’s a situation that should have been avoided by the administration.

Hours after the news broke, Finley Chastain, a top five recruit in the class of 2027, reopened her recruitment.

“Over the past two years, I have fallen in love with the Knoxville community and everything Tennessee,” the 6-0 high school freshman point guard posted. “The staff, players and fans have been amazing! While I’m not closing the door on being a Lady Vol, due to the recent change in staff, I will be reopening my recruitment.”

On Tuesday, Nyla Brooks, a class of 2025 commit, also reopened her recruitment. The 6-2 guard is an elite recruit and will likely be a All-American in her senior year of high school.

“After thoughtful consideration and discussion with my family, I want to express my gratitude to the Lady Vols Nation for considering me for their team,” Brooks posted on social media. “I’ve decided to keep my options open given recent events. I am reopening my recruitment. While I haven’t ruled out attending Tennessee as a student-athlete, I feel it’s important to explore other opportunities for my future.”

The future of Lady Vols basketball is on the line. Choose wisely.

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.


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