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Harper eager for chance to return Lady Vols to prominence

April 11, 2019
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University of Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer passes a jersey to Kellie Harper during a press conference announcing her as the new head coach of the Lady Vols, in the Ray and Lucy Hand Studio on University of Tennessee's campus Wednesday, April 10, 2019 in Knoxville, Tenn. (Caitie McMekin/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Kellie Harper says she was playing for Tennessee when Pat Summitt predicted the tenacious point guard would eventually coach the Lady Vols.

Summitt’s forecast has become reality. Harper had her introductory news conference Wednesday as she tries to help Tennessee regain its status as one of the nation’s top women’s college basketball programs.

“Pat used to kid me, she used to say, ‘You know, you’ll probably go back to Tennessee and coach one day,’” Harper said. “I really brushed that off because in my mind that was Pat Summitt’s job, and that was going to be Pat Summitt’s job forever. You just don’t think about her not being there.”

Harper, who led Missouri State to the Sweet 16 this season, was known as Kellie Jolly while playing for Tennessee from 1995-99. She helped the Lady Vols win three straight national titles from 1996-98.

Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer said he initially was “a bit in the mindset of we need to find the best coach — male, female, Lady Vol or not — just whoever’s going to be the best at this moment.”

But as the search progressed and he talked with other Tennessee athletic officials, Fulmer became convinced that “it was essential” to find a coach who had ties to the Lady Vols program.

“Lady Vol basketball is the mecca, the genesis and the mother of modern women’s basketball in our country,” Fulmer said. “It was very clear at the beginning that we had to find a person that truly understood the foundations that Pat Summitt and our past Lady Vol coaches and players had laid here at Tennessee.”

Harper replaces Holly Warlick, a former assistant on Summitt’s staff who was fired after going 172-67 in seven seasons. Tennessee reached regional finals in three of Warlick’s first four seasons but followed that up with second-round NCAA exits in 2017 and 2018 and a first-round loss this season.

Warlick took over when Summitt stepped down in 2012 after leading Tennessee to eight national titles. Summitt died at the age of 64 in 2016, five years after announcing she had early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.

“I want to be respectful to Holly Warlick and her staff,” said Harper, whose five-year contract pays $750,000 annually. “I played for Holly, and I love Holly and her passion for this university.”

In some respects, Harper has much in common with her predecessor.

Both are former Tennessee players. Both had to step in for Hall of Fame coaches, with Warlick replacing Summitt while Harper once took over for the late Kay Yow at North Carolina State.

But there’s one major difference.

Warlick had no head coaching experience before starting this job. Harper owns a 285-208 record in 15 years at three schools.

Joan Cronan, the Tennessee women’s athletic director for most of Summitt’s coaching tenure, called Harper “the right hire at the right time.” Cronan has retired but offered input to Fulmer during the search.

“She brings experience,” Cronan said. “She brings a love for the program. She brings an understanding of our tradition, and she fits right into our culture.”

Harper, 41, reached two NCAA Tournaments (2005 and 2009) with Western Carolina and earned two more NCAA berths in six years at Missouri State, but had mixed results in her only previous major conference stint.

She posted a 70-64 record with one NCAA appearance at North Carolina State before getting fired in 2013. Harper says she has learned from that NC State experience.

“I’ve grown as a communicator,” Harper said. “I’ve grown even as an administrator, knowing how to manage our staff and manage players and understand what they need. It’s not always about X’s and O’s.”

Harper inherits a Tennessee team coming off a 19-13 season.

She spoke with Tennessee’s three incoming recruits and said all still plan to enroll. Her next recruiting mission could involve Evina Westbrook, the Lady Vols’ leading scorer last season.

Westbrook has entered the transfer portal, but attended Wednesday’s news conference. Harper said she hasn’t yet spoken with Westbrook individually. No players were made available to the media after the news conference.

Tennessee hopes Harper can pass on the traits she showed as a player.

Harper tore an anterior cruciate ligament before the start of her sophomore season but returned later that year to help Tennessee win the national title. In her memoir “Sum It Up,” Summitt called Harper a “brilliant, tough-jawed” player and wrote that “our team followed Kellie’s lead in everything.”

Harper now has her dream job as she tries to carry on Summitt’s legacy.

“It’s important to say I’m not here to try to be Pat Summitt,” Harper said. “I’m here to be Kellie, who learned from Pat Summitt, and hopefully you’ll see that.”

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