KNOXVILLE – When Tennessee was looking for a new women’s basketball coach, several acquaintances of Kellie Harper either knew or assumed she was a prime candidate. Therefore, they felt compelled to text and were in choral unison with their messages: “You don’t have to say yes.”
“I think it was because they see it as a big challenge,” Harper said. “Obviously it’s a big challenge. But I’m completely confident.”
Harper, who had been coaching at Missouri State the past six seasons, was introduced as the Lady Vols’ new coach last week.
She’s replaced Holly Warlick, who was let go after seven seasons. Warlick was a UT assistant when Harper played here from 1995-99.
Harper’s life lately has been a whirlwind of activity, which is fine with her.
“I’m very comfortable,” she said. “I feel very busy but I feel very comfortable about the position and being able to succeed here.”
Here are Harper’s thoughts on subjects related to her new challenge:
“It’s been a fluid thing,” she said. “We have our basic philosophy but then exactly what we’re doing, sometimes it’s fluid.”
Harper, who has 15 seasons of head coaching experience, said that her approach to offense differs from her UT experience. Defense and rebounding are not as different, other than perhaps the implementation.
“We practice rebounding daily; we work on it a lot,” she said. “At Tennessee, I don’t remember practicing it as much as it being emphasized.”
The North Carolina State experience
Harper was fired after four seasons as head coach of the Wolfpack and left with some hard-earned lessons about managing players and organizing a staff.
“Any time you get let go, I think it rattles you, it does,” she said. “The best thing for me then was going to Missouri State, where I had unbelievable support. I really understand now how much that meant.
“Also I feel like I’m in a better place for me personally to walk out there being confident with what I’m doing because I know what we do works.”
UT’s point guard, who was critical of the previous coaching staff, has since put her name in the transfer portal. Harper was meeting with Westbrook on Monday to begin determining whether she will stay or go.
“I want to be respectful of her decision and I will be,” Harper said. “But for the sake of the team, I think it’s time we start making some decisions.”
Players and rosters
Harper has conducted one team workout and so far, so good regarding the players.
“Right now, I can’t be worried if that shot went in or did they do this exactly right,” she said. “I worry more about their effort and their attitude, their body language and how they’re being receptive. Because I can fix the other pieces.”
Regarding the roster, Harper said that she prefers having at least 13 players.
“I consistently play 10 or 11 players; I’ve been able to do that,” she said. “I think it’s good for camaraderie. I’d like to get to that point.”
Filling a coaching staff
Harper said that her husband, Jon, will be an assistant on her staff. She also is bringing in Jennifer Sullivan, who spent last season at Ohio State after serving five seasons on Harper’s staff at Missouri State.
“She’s a superstar in the making,” Harper said of Sullivan.
The remaining coaching hire, though, will be the top assistant on Harper’s staff.
“I’m looking for someone who can give us great insight and credibility in the recruiting area,” she said. “They will have an ability, like the rest of my staff, to handle and talk to these players.”
About replacing Warlick
“I was pulling for Holly,” Harper said. “Two months ago, I was hoping that they would make a big run and win and everything would be very different now. It’s not that I didn’t want to be here. It’s not that. I wanted her to succeed. So I never did turn my sights to having this opportunity until (UT) called me after she was let go.
“I admire Holly. She’s such a good person. I love being around her. She impacted my life in a very positive way. She deserved the opportunity she got. It’s hard going through what she’s going through right now. My heart goes out to her. I hope she understands that she’s always welcome.”
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org