Dan Fleser: Next Lady Vols Coach Will Face High Hurdles

Wednesday, April 3, 2019 - by Dan Fleser

KNOXVILLE – The search for the next Tennessee women’s basketball coach began in earnest this week with reports that UT had asked Missouri State to speak with its coach, Kellie Harper.

Harper is a former Lady Vols point guard – sound familiar? – who played on three national championship teams at Tennessee. Missouri State just finished a run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

Harper, who was Kellie Jolly during her playing days, is an appealing candidate with many Lady Vols fans.

Some were watching her last seek and comparing her mannerisms to UT coaching legend Pat Summitt.

This got me to thinking: What if she turns out to be the choice?

Well, her resume doesn’t stack up to her predecessor, Holly Warlick. Although UT’s performance was trending in the wrong direction, Warlick, another former Lady Vols point guard, still was 172-67 in seven seasons with three NCAA Elite Eight appearances and three SEC championships. The Lady Vols won 25 games as recently as last season.

By comparison, Harper’s best season was this season, when the Lady Bears won 25 games and the Missouri Valley Conference tournament title.

This column won’t be an exercise in denigrating a popular candidate. Instead the intention is to remind of the challenges involved with filling such a high-profile position.

Here’s some of the difficulties related to making the choice:

The Summitt factor: The former coach’s presence still looms large. In the team’s new locker room, a large Summitt mural adorns a wall in the living room area.

Nobody expected Warlick to impersonate Summitt. Yet fans wanted her teams to better reflect the success and consistency achieved under Summitt.

The shadow cast by Summitt and her career won’t be receding anytime soon. The next coach still is only one coach removed from replacing a legend.

It’s more than coaching: This job arguably equates with the role of being a CEO. Leadership is of paramount importance. Having a presence matters.

Presently, salesmanship also is crucial. The fan base literally needs to be won over again. Average attendance for home games slipped to 8,028 last season.

Policing the players: In order to win games, the next coach needs to win back the locker room first.

Team chemistry has been an issue to varying degrees for the past four seasons. This season might have a worst-case example, given the team’s apparent indifference at times. It all was punctuated by starting point guard Evina Westbrook critiquing the coaching staff following a season-ending loss to UCLA in the NCAA tournament.

To date, there’s been no public word of defections, either from current players or signees. Perhaps they’re waiting to see who replaces Warlick.

What’s the strategy?: Assuming the new coach can quell all of the aforementioned fires, there’s still the matter of how to proceed strategically.

The sport is in a transition phase with offense challenging the traditional embrace of defense and rebounding. Teams like defending national champion Notre Dame and Oregon, which has reached the Final Four this season, reflect the change.

Tennessee shot 39 percent from floor in its last national championship victory, 11 years ago in Tampa, Fla, the site of this year’s Final Four. The Lady Vols beat Stanford 64-48 by holding the Cardinal to 29 percent shooting and 21 points in the second half.

If there’s ever a next championship, I don’t think it will be won in that manner.

* * *

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 danfleser3@gmail.com 

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