It was a beautiful day in Tampa and Kellie Jolly Harper, there for a meeting, was playing phone tag with University of Tennessee Director of Athletics Phillip Fulmer. She knew he was calling to tell her the results of the search for the next Lady Vols head basketball coach — and she really wanted the job.
Finally, they connected and she held her breath. “Are you ready to be the next Lady Vols basketball coach?” he asked. She paused. “When you know you are having a moment, you have to appreciate it,” she told an attentive audience this week. A few seconds later, she answered him. “Oh, yeah!”
“To have the opportunity to coach at your alma mater is a big deal,” she said. Harper, who was part of three consecutive NCAA women’s national championships from 1996 to 1998 for the Tennessee Lady Volunteers, was the starting point guard in 1997 and 1998.
Of course, she was asked about her playing time under legendary Coach Pat Summitt. “Playing for her was exactly what you think it was — it was hard,” she said. “She was a perfectionist. In the moment she’s yelling at you, you must remember she’s doing it for you.”
Harper, 42, is excited about the upcoming season — she can tell you the number of days until tip-off. “We want to be a team you love to watch,” she said. “And we want to be out in the community.”
She said the players have been very receptive to her and her staff. “We are looking forward — not looking back,” she said. “We are not going to be negative.”
In other remarks, Coach Harper said:
- She only saw Pat Summitt cry once in all the time she knew her. It was in the locker room in Greensboro, North Carolina, after the Lady Vols lost to Duke in the Elite Eight in 1999, denying Tennessee a fourth consecutive Final Four and ending the college careers of seniors Harper and Chamique Holdsclaw, who remains the all-time leading scorer, men or women, at Tennessee with 3,025 points. “I knew she wasn’t crying for herself,” Harper said. “She was crying for me. And she was crying for Chamique.” A few weeks later, Holdsclaw was a bridesmaid in Harper’s wedding in Sparta, Tennessee — and the groom, Jon Harper, is an assistant coach for the Lady Vols.
- She has hired a nanny to help care for her two children, Jackson, who is almost 6, and Kylie, 1. “Pat was an unbelievable mother — and she had a nanny,” Harper said. “You can do both — be a great mom and have a nanny.”
- Summitt said to always surround yourself with good people, Harper said. And she has done that. She said her staff members all are “elite” in their areas of expertise and she expects the same from her players. “High achievers are high achievers,” she said. “You can be good on the court and good in the classroom. It goes together.”
- For fun she loves riding her two horses. “They are nothing special,” she laughed. “They don’t jump over anything. They don’t prance around. They mostly mosey along the trail.”
Dana Hart, president of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, said the museum originally was supposed to have been located in Jackson, Tennessee, but that city could not raise the funds to pay for it. Why Jackson? That’s where the NAIA tournaments were played. “But we had Pat Summitt,” Hart noted with pride.
The Hall covers the years 1892 to the present. Sixty percent of the exhibits change every year, Hart said.
Note: A special thanks to Moxley Carmichael’s Maria Cornelius for helping with the details about Kellie Harper’s time as a Lady Vol player.