Dan Fleser: White Wanted Great, Not Good Lady Vols Program

  • Monday, April 1, 2024
  • Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser

Maintaining a good women’s basketball program was not good enough for Kellie Harper to keep her job as Tennessee’s coach. Athletic director Danny White wants the Lady Vols to be great again.

That’s the takeaway from White’s decision to fire Harper after five seasons. He announced the move on Monday after what he described as “a thorough review” of the program.

“Decisions like these are never easy to make,” White said in a university release, “especially with someone who has done so much as a three-time national champion student-athlete. Her love and passion for the Lady Vols is second to none.”

Interesting that White referenced Harper’s playing career and the team’s achievements while she played point guard for the Lady Vols. It likely was telling as well, suggesting his intent is to take a bigger swing at finding a coach who can recreate such success.

“After seeking input from our student-athletes,” White said, “I will begin an aggressive search process to find the next leader for our iconic women’s basketball program.”

While Tennessee was 108-52 overall under Harper, they finished this season outside the Associated Press’ top 25 poll for 16 consecutive weeks, topping the 14 consecutive weeks the program was unranked in 2022-23. By comparison, former coach Pat Summitt’s teams went unranked for just 14 weeks total.

The Lady Vols were 53-24 in SEC play during Harper’s tenure but never finished higher than third. The Lady Vols could challenge South Carolina on the court, losing to the Gamecocks on a last-second shot in the SEC tournament semifinals earlier this month, but couldn’t threaten South Carolina’s place atop the league standings. Furthermore, LSU, under coach Kim Mulkey, had pushed past Tennessee and Ole Miss, under Yolett McPhee-McCuin, was doing the same.

In the NCAA tournament, the Lady Vols reached consecutive Sweet 16s in 2022 and 2023 but lost at that juncture to Louisville and Virginia Tech respectively. As a No. 6 seed, they took a step back this season, losing at North Carolina State in the second round.

Along with not reaching Tennessee’s previous standards, the program seemed poised to descend even further, at least in the short term. Star forward Rickea Jackson, the team’s leading scorer, and starting point guard Jasmine Powell, both have exhausted their eligibility. Although guard Jewel Spear, the team’s second-leading scorer, announced her intention Sunday to return for another season, it’s not known if she was aware of the coaching change before her announcement.

In the short term, White and Tennessee will be paying for his decision to extend Harper’s contract after last season to 2028 and bump her salary to $1.1 million annually. Per terms of her buyout, she will receive half her compensation - $550,000 per year – until 2028.

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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 1988. He is a 2022 inductee to the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.

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