KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — University of Tennessee Director of Athletics Phillip Fulmer welcomed new Lady Vol head basketball coach Kellie Harper to Rocky Top on Wednesday afternoon at a press conference in the Ray and Lucy Hand Digital Studio.
Harper, who hails from Sparta, Tenn., and played at UT from 1995-99, was joined by husband Jon, son Jackson and daughter Kiley in a room filled by family members, current and former Lady Vols as well as UT administrators and friends of the program.
UT announced Harper, the 2019 Kay Yow Coach of the Year and Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year, as its third women’s hoops leader of the NCAA era on Tuesday. She spent six seasons at Missouri State, guiding the 2018-19 Lady Bears on a late season run that included victories over three consecutive ranked opponents (No. 21 Drake, No. 24 DePaul, No. 13 Iowa State) en route to an MVC Tournament crown and the NCAA Sweet 16.
Kellie Harper, Lady Vol Head Coach
“Thank you for coming. I want to thank Coach Fulmer for this opportunity to be here and be your coach. I do realize that when I walked up here, I can look outside and see a statue over there; that moment was not lost on me. Thanks also go out to Angie (Boyd Keck) and all of the other administrators here. There are some great, top-notch people here that I look forward to working with. I also want to thank my former coaches and roommates for being here and all former Lady Vols.
There are also some people that I wish could be here today: some close friends, of course, my dad… I know he is smiling down, and this is a proud moment for him as well. I also hope that Pat Summitt is smiling down today. I think about her often, and I know that is going to happen frequently here for a while. It is important to say, I am not here to try to be Pat Summitt; I am here to be Kellie, who learned from Pat Summitt, and hopefully you will see that. In addition, I want to be very respectful to Holly Warlick and her staff. I played for Holly and love Holly and her passion for this university.
Everyone knows that the University of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball program is great and historic, but not everyone knows what it is like to be in it. What it is like to put that jersey on and play for something so much bigger than yourself. I do understand the gravity of this position, and I am humbled, honored and I am ready to take on this journey. The Lady Vols program has many responsibilities to this university, community, the state, and to be quite honest with you, all of women’s basketball. We also have a responsibility to our alumni to be proud of who we are. I want them to be involved and continue to support this team. We are going to do that by being a fun team to watch and fun to pull for. You do that by being tough, gritty, and (having) high energy. We are going to play quick, we are going to play aggressively, we are going to compete, and we are going to be honored to wear the Lady Vols jersey. I am so, so excited to be home. When you give everything you have to a program and you have this opportunity, it is indescribable and extremely special. I am ready to get to work.”
On what the Lady Vols program means to her:
“For me, the lines are blurred between family and basketball. My son is sitting with the players. You just feel like you give everything you have to a program. You feel like the players are your family. I am pretty competitive. I want to win, but there is no other place that I want to do it more than here.”
On her emotions when she arrived on campus:
“First of all, my emotions have been all over the map to be honest with you. I know we have a lot of work to do, and that is where I am trying to keep my focus. It is a little surreal when you walk past the national championship trophies, and it is pretty special when you get to point your picture out to your children. It has been a fun day to relive some memories and get excited about what is about to happen.”
On what she learned from her time at NC State:
“I think anywhere you go, any experience that you have, either positive or negative, you learn from it. Going over to N.C. State after Coach (Kay) Yow was a really interesting situation, and it had its challenges. I think I have grown as a coach. I have learned a lot and have really been able to apply those lessons to my coaching moving forward. You do that in any situation. When I was hired as the head coach at Western Carolina, I was the youngest coach in the country, and a lot has changed about me since then.”
On how she has grown as a coach:
“I have grown as a communicator, administrator,and know how to manage staff and players… how to understand what they need. It is not always about Xs and Os, and I think I have learned that a lot throughout my career.”
On if coming back to Tennessee to coach was a goal of hers:
“Pat used to kid me and say, You’ll probably come back and coach at Tennessee one day.’ 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. It’s been a few years, and we’ve had to get used to that. It hasn’t been easy. When this opportunity came available, this is my dream job.”
On what she learned from Pat Summitt:
“You learn so much from her that if you aren’t learning, you aren’t trying. I think the things that I have taken away is how on the court she was always so poised as a coach, so whatever she was selling us, we were believing it. She would come to the huddle in a tight game – I do realize that we weren’t in a lot of tight games – she could immediately pass on that poise to her team, and we could walk out onto the court with a lot of confidence. I’ve tried to have that for our team and be able to give that to our team in those situations. I thought she did an unbelievable job of utilizing her assistant coaches. I was able to see that during my sophomore season when I sat out part of the year due to an ACL tear. I got to see how she relied on them, and that was very insightful for me. She ran a classy program. She ran it with class and treated people the right way. She did it the right way, and that’s something that I’ve tried to mimic as well.”
On the makeup of her staff and keeping in contact with Tennessee’s current recruits:
“Addressing the staff, we’re working on it right now. Once we get that finalized, we’ll get that out there. That’s a work in progress. In terms of the recruits, I’ve had great conversations with their families, great conversations with them, and they are all on board and feel great about being Lady Vols.”
On what she knows about her existing roster, and has she spoken with Evina Westbrook:
“We met with the team briefly and basically were able to just make some introductions, release some anxiety and let them actually see and hear from their coach directly. In terms of the makeup of the team, I’ve been able to watch some video of them, and I’m really excited about getting my hands on them because I think there’s a lot of talent there. I think what they bring will fit my style. We want to be aggressive; we want to get up and down the floor, and I think they can do that and have a lot of fun with it. And no, I have not been able to speak with Evina (Westbrook) one-on-one yet.”
On if she’s had a moment to reflect on the fact that she is the head coach at Tennessee:
“There have been many moments today where it would be easy to say ‘That’s it.’ But the moment for me was when they just brought my daughter back in a Tennessee outfit with a Tennessee logo on it, and then Jackson came in with a ‘Power T’ shirt on. That was it for me. That was the moment.”
On where she thinks Tennessee stands among other programs, and if she has spoken to Holly Warlick:
“I’ve reached out to Holly, and we’ve played a little phone tag. So, we’re going to connect soon. That has not happened yet, but it will. In terms of where the program is right now, the biggest thing is the consistency. I think some of the programs that you mentioned are consistently contenders to be in the Final Four and win national championships, and I think we have to get there. I think we can do that. I’m excited and very confident in our ability to get this group there.”
On what she knows about the current Lady Vol signees:
“I’ve done a little bit of homework on them, and I’ve seen a couple of them play live in-person. It is a priority. To me the priorities are your current players – that’s the first priority – and then your signees, staff and recruits. I think you have to get those boxes checked off quickly. I wanted to make sure that we reached out to those young ladies and they got to ask any questions they had. I’ll actually be going out to visit with each of them one-on-one, and I think that’s really important. I have this time with our current players to talk to them, spend time with them, and I think the signees need to feel that same comfort level.”
Phillip Fulmer, UT Director of Athletics
“I want to thank everyone for being here. We have known for a long time that we have something very special here with our Lady Vol basketball program. As we began this process to find a new women’s basketball coach, many of the coaches that we were talking to about the job referred to the Lady Vol basketball program with reverence. Lady Vol basketball is the mecca, the genesis and the mother of modern women’s basketball in our country.
“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. We have an amazing brand that resonates across the country. We needed to find a person to support and grow our young ladies academically, socially and athletically and to, in essence, be a second parent.
“Kellie Jolly Harper cares. She’s an excellent communicator and will grow our young ladies. We needed to find a person that will recruit as we have in the past at the highest level and develop our young ladies into a real team, not just a group of athletes. Kellie demands respect and cares and wants people to care for each other. Kellie communicated in her interview a clear plan and a passion and a vision. It was clear that Kellie does not view this as just a job. It will be a lifestyle for her and her family as it is ingrained in her blood and in her guts. Her teams have reflected accountability, effort, fundamentals, intensity and toughness as well as skill and execution. We all recognize that talent and effort and greatness are parallel roads, and it’s hard to have one without the other. Under Coach Harper’s leadership, the Lady Vols will be what the world has come to expect and admire from the Lady Vols. It is my pleasure to introduce our Lady Vol basketball coach. Welcome home, Kellie Harper.”
On the importance of hiring a former Lady Vol:
“It was essential. Angie (Boyd Keck), Donna (Thomas), Tara (Brooks) and all of the ladies immediately told that to me. I was a bit in the mindset that we needed to find the best coach, male or female, Lady Vol or non-Lady Vol, whoever was going to be the best at this moment. It became very clear to me as the interview process started, that we had our choice in the country who to talk to. As we went through a grinding process, and our staff did a grinding search, it became clear that a Lady Vol would be really great. Kellie knocked it out of the park. We had a lot of good interviews. There were a lot of people interested in this job.”
On the concern of Kellie not having much experience at a Power Five school:
“She’s gone to the tournament everywhere that she has coached. You can tell her intensity and her passion for her players and her program. When she talked about Tennessee, she talked about her teammates and Pat Summitt. There was a reverence there that was really special. We felt like that was the right way to go. I am excited to see her get to work.”
On how Pat Summitt would feel about this day:
“I think that she would be thrilled with this choice. She had a number of Lady Vols out there that could have just as easily been picked. Pat carried herself in a certain way, with class and dignity. The Lady Vols that we interviewed, and all the people that we interviewed, did the same. She sets the standard there. I don’t want to put too much pressure on Kellie by making her think that she needs to be Pat Summitt. The game has changed a lot since then. There are a lot more schools in the country that are dedicated to having great basketball schools and women’s basketball programs. There used to be six or seven teams, not to take anything away from Pat or anyone else, but now there are six or seven teams just in the conference that will try to beat your brains out. It’s a different time. The game has changed. It’s a lot faster and more open. Kellie gets all of that.”
On what stuck out about Kellie that impressed him the most:
“It wasn’t about one or two things. It was from start to finish. You could tell that she was bright, articulate and she cared very much about where she was coaching. That loyalty was important along with her current players there. She has bled for the Lady Vols, and she was a part of the most historic time in its history with three national championships. She knows what it feels like to be behind with a possession or two to go and find a way to win. She knows how to live up to expectations for that matter.”
On the people that helped him throughout the process:
“Well, it was ultimately my call and responsibility. All of the people that I mentioned earlier and in our department were a part of it. Angie Boyd Keck was a big part of it. We had a number of people involved. We talked to people from all over the country about people that we were looking at and people that we actually did interview. Joan Cronan was very helpful in the process as well.”