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Ex-Lady Vol Kellie Harper returns to her alma mater as coach

April 9, 2019
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Missouri State head coach Kellie Harper smiles as he directs her team during the second half of a regional semifinal game against the Stanford in the NCAA women's college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 30, 2019, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Former Lady Vols point guard Kellie Harper is returning to Tennessee, ready to take on the challenge of rejuvenating one of the biggest brand names in women’s college basketball.

Tennessee announced Tuesday that Harper was returning as the women’s hoops coach two decades after she played on three consecutive Lady Vols national championship teams. She replaces Holly Warlick, who was fired two weeks ago after a first-round NCAA Tournament exit.

“I am incredibly humbled and honored to be named the head coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols,” Harper said in a university release. “Tennessee holds a special place in my heart, and I am excited to embrace the legacy of this proud program. I can’t wait to help each player and this team be champions, on the court and off.”

Tennessee will formally introduce Harper at a Wednesday afternoon news conference.

Harper, who coached Missouri State to a surprise Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA Tournament, was known as Kellie Jolly when she played for Tennessee from 1995-99. She helped the Lady Vols win national titles in 1996, 1997 and 1998.

“She is a Lady Vol through and through,” athletic director Phillip Fulmer said in a statement. “Her love of the game, her care and love for her players, and her loyalty to UT all came through during the interview process.

“Kellie has proven to be a winner at every stop in her career, taking three programs to the NCAA Tournament. She certainly knows the expectations that come with this job, as she has lived it herself.”

Warlick was fired March 27 after going 172-67 in seven seasons. Warlick was an assistant on Pat Summitt’s Tennessee staff when Harper was playing for the Lady Vols.

Tennessee and Harper agreed to terms on a five-year contract worth $750,000 per year. Warlick had a salary of $690,000.

Harper led Missouri State to a 25-10 record and a regional semifinal berth as a No. 11 seed this season. She owns a 118-79 record in six seasons at Missouri State and grew up about 100 miles west of Tennessee’s campus in Sparta, Tennessee.

But she struggled in her only previous major-conference head coaching stint.

Harper replaced the late Kay Yow at North Carolina State and went 70-64 in four years before getting fired in 2013. Her lone NCAA Tournament appearance at North Carolina State came in her debut season.

The 41-year-old Harper owns an overall head coaching record of 285-208 in 15 seasons. Harper went 97-65 with two NCAA Tournament appearances in five seasons at Western Carolina before heading to North Carolina State.

Her Missouri State team bounced back from a 1-7 start and upset Drake in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship game. The Lady Bears then beat DePaul and knocked off Iowa State on its home floor in the NCAA Tournament before falling to Stanford in the Sweet 16.

“I am thankful to Kellie for restoring the pride back to Lady Bears basketball,” Missouri State athletic director Ryan Moats said in a statement. “She not only was successful on the court, but recruited high quality players and high character student-athletes. She displayed class in everything she did. Her teams loved her and I know our fans did as well. I am forever grateful we were able to work together, and wish her nothing but the best as she embarks on her ‘dream job’ to restore the greatness at Tennessee.”

Tennessee is counting on Harper to spark a program that has fallen on hard times after winning eight national championships and reaching 18 Final Fours under Summitt, who stepped down for health reasons in 2012. Summitt died at the age of 64 in 2016, five years after announcing she had early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.

Warlick, a former Tennessee player and longtime assistant on Summitt’s staff, succeeded her Hall of Fame mentor and reached regional finals in three of her first four seasons. But the Lady Vols haven’t advanced beyond the second round of the NCAA Tournament in any of the last three years.

Tennessee went 19-13 this season, received one of the last couple of at-large spots into the NCAA Tournament and lost to UCLA in the opening round. Tennessee’s the only program to appear in every NCAA Tournament since the event started in 1982.

The Lady Vols fell short of 20 wins this season for the first time since 1975-76.

Tennessee hasn’t reached a Final Four since its 2008 national championship season. Tennessee’s average announced home attendance this season was 8,028, its lowest since 1993-94 and a 29.5% drop from Warlick’s first season.

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