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Mike Lopresti | | January 17, 2022

Tennessee women's basketball coach Kellie Harper fights to restore 'awe factor,' glory days to storied program

Pat Summitt's first title with the Lady Vols: 1987 vs. Louisiana Tech

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It is early Thursday afternoon and the Memorial Gym court at Vanderbilt is full of orange. The Tennessee Lady Volunteers are going through their shoot-around for the game that night, and off to the side, their coach is trying to describe her world.

This little tidbit for instance: In the quiet moments, when the demands of restoring the aura of Tennessee women’s basketball grow heavy, Kellie Harper sometimes listens for the voice of Pat Summitt.

She was once Kellie Jolly, another face in the seemingly endless parade of Tennessee players that Summitt used to make the Lady Vols the gold standard of the game. But Summitt is gone now — losing her battle with Alzheimer’s in 2016 — and Tennessee basketball has ebbed from the truly elite. Still good, mind you; there have been 39 women’s NCAA tournaments and all 39 included the Lady Volunteers. Just not . . . Tennessee.

The program that produced eight national champions and 18 Final Fours has not seen either of those for 13 years. The orange machine that turned up in 28 of the first 35 Elite Eights has not made it past the first weekend of the tournament since 2016. Other royalty — Connecticut, Stanford, South Carolina, et. al. — have moved into the penthouse. March has never looked quite right, though, without Tennessee on the main stage.

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“I think it’s important for women’s basketball that Tennessee is good. Not just for our alums and our community, but all of college basketball,” Harper is saying. “For years you’d go to the Final Four and there was going to be a lot of orange there, whether Tennessee was there or not. I’ve told (her players) that we have an accountability to women’s basketball to be good. Pat did so much for this game. We’ve got to continue to carry that torch. You come to Tennessee, it’s a big deal. It’s not easy to be a Lady Vol. There are more eyes on you, there’s a lot of expectation. But it’s unbelievably worth it. I can say that first hand because I’ve lived it.”

Harper was part of three Summitt national champions in the 1990s, a point guard for a team that went 39-0, scoring 20 points in the title game. She has gone from there to become a coach, a wife, a mother. Now she is back at her alma mater and in her third season of what she wants to be a revival of the true Tennessee. The progress is obvious. On this afternoon, the Lady Vols are 15-1, ranked No. 5 and have beaten three ranked opponents. The one loss was to Stanford.

Through all that, know what question she hears so often?

What would Pat think?

“I’m not a big fan of that because I can’t answer that,” she says. “Nobody can answer that. But I do think about it often, I wonder what she would think. I believe she would be really proud of this program. She’d probably tell me, `you’ve got to keep working.’ Very blunt, this is how it has to be.”

Then she pauses and the next words are softer.

“I feel like I can hear her talking to me.”

Back in Knoxville, the treasures from the Summitt reign are impossible to miss, starting with the eight national championship banners hanging from the ceiling at Thompson-Boling Arena. Harper likes it that way.

“Every now and then, when I’m trying to get our players focused and trying to get them locked in, I can point up there and say, what we’re doing right now doesn’t look like that. The really cool thing right now is this group, they want to hang a banner, and they truly believe they can.”

Harper arrived at Tennessee in 2019 from Missouri State, where she had coached her team to the NCAA tournament. Same as she had done at North Carolina State. And before that Western Carolina. When the Vols made the field last March, she became only the second coach in the history of women’s basketball — with Jim Foster — to lead four different schools into the tournament.

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Every place required and had her heart. But this is something else. This is Tennessee. Her school. She had watched the sagging of the Lady Vols from afar, so she knew what was coming when she took the job.

“The awe factor Tennessee had in the ‘90s wasn’t the same,” she says. “What is the same is the support, fans, the love for it. But in terms of the team and the program, it felt every different.”

Bringing back the glory days won't be easy. She understands that. There are so many more good teams, so many more good players. But she wants to do it, for the school, for the athletes, for all those fans who show up every game night in orange. And for Pat. Might that be called the challenge of a professional lifetime?

“When you put it like that, yeah. But I don’t think about it that way. I don’t make it bigger than it actually is,” she says. “In the daily work, I’m a coach. I was a coach at Missouri State, I was a coach at NC State, I was a coach at Western Carolina. My job was to coach, it was to mold, it was to help inspire and grow women. That doesn’t change. I do think having that mindset helps handle all the extra that comes with putting on orange, because there is so much more.”

Harper gets back to the shoot-around. On the court in their practice apparel is a Tennessee team that has had to overcome some adversity for its 15-1 record. Rae Burrell, a pre-season first team all-SEC selection, has played only four games because of a knee injury. Reserve Marta Suarez is lost for the season with a leg injury. But between Jordan Horston averaging nearly a double double and Tamari Key blocking 65 shots and various other contributions, they know how to get things done.

You can tell that by the classroom. The team GPA the fall term was 3.39. Starting guard Jordan Walker is working on her MBA. One of the top reserves, Keyen Green. is pursuing a Ph.D. Harper is fascinated just by Green’s daily workload.

“I tell her all the time we’re living vicariously through her,” Harper says. “What we are targeting is high achievers. People who want to succeed don’t just pick and choose when they want to succeed. It’s not about making A's, it’s about working.”

Tennessee’s work ethic can be seen in its defense and rebounding. The Lady Vols come into this trip with a 16.7 rebounding margin, and allowing opponents a nation’s-best 30.1 shooting percentage. “She would love that,” Harper says. She, of course, is Summitt. “That’s what she built this program on, defense and rebounding.”

That’s a comfort for a coach who values yesterday, works today, and has major hopes for tomorrow. This is Tennessee. In her mind, failure is not an option. Can’t be an option.

“If you would allow it to, I think it can overwhelm you because it’s such a big deal. You’re carrying such a big load,” she says. “But for me, I go in and do the very best I can do every single day. I want these players to experience what I did, because it was so amazing. I’m willing to give them everything I’ve got. I think because of that, it helps me sleep at night.

“Today’s job is not to win the national championship. Today’s job is to be the best that we can be and try to figure out a way to beat Vanderbilt.”

Eight hours later, Tennessee is 16-1, having rolled over Vandy 65-51. Her players echo her mission.

“I want to win a national championship. At Tennessee we’ve won eight of those things,” says Horston, after 16 points and 13 rebounds. “I feel like the time is now. It would mean the world to bring the legacy back to Tennessee. That makes you work harder. These people (before at Tennessee) set the bar so high for us, we can’t let them down. We come up short, that means we’re letting the program down.”

Key, after 10 points, mentions the chip on all the Vol shoulders. “We’ll do whatever we need to do to get back to that. I feel like pressure is a privilege, especially at Tennessee. I think a lot of people doubt us. Actually I know that a lot of people doubt us. Honestly that’s OK. They’re going to have to realize who we are. We know we are and that’s all that matters to us.”

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Each win comes with its own flavor of post-game celebration. The players like to keep things loose. They hid in their lockers at Arkansas, so Harper thought she had walked into an empty room after game. It’s all in fun. When Harper was a high school phenom dedicated to her basketball, a college recruiter once told her she needed to enjoy the game more.

“I was so offended in that moment. But as I’ve gotten older I understand what they were saying,” she says. “I was having fun, but you couldn’t tell by watching me, I so serious, I was so focused. I’m a huge believer in you can work really hard and have fun. I learned that at Tennessee.”

Harper heads for the bus for the trip back to Knoxville, back to her son and daughter. Her husband? That’s Jon Harper, one of her assistants. Just as he was at Western Carolina and North Carolina State and Missouri State. Before they had children, it was all basketball all the time. “We could literally go three or four days in a row without speaking to each other as a husband and a wife,” she says. Now the children need their attention and time, too. She is prone to get up early, he is prone to stay up late. They make it all work.

So it’s a big life for Kellie Harper these days. She knows where Tennessee has been, and she knows where she wants it to go. She visualizes the day when the Lady Vols get there.

“I dream about that a lot. Not in my sleep dream, my wide-awake dream. I think about what it would like, I think about how I would feel and my emotions. I think about it a lot so I’m ready for it. I’ll know how to act when we get there.”

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