Not nearly enough wrong to fire Coach Harper

By Steve Williams

Did Danny White do his homework on Kellie Harper the coach before firing her?

Sure the UT athletic director knew she had played on three national title teams for the legendary Pat Summitt in the 1990s, but how well did he know her as a college basketball coach?

White said he told Harper they were making a change after a “thorough review” of the program.

But was White aware the UT women’s basketball team was the lowest point contributor among winter sports in the SEC All-Sports standings in 2018-19, the year before Harper took over the program. The Lady Vols (7-9, 19-13) were fortunate to extend their NCAA tournament streak that season.

It takes time to get a program turned back around and Harper accomplished that as the Lady Vols were 13-3 in the conference and 25-12 overall in 2022-23.

I admit the Lady Vols’ record this season (10-6, 20-13) slipped a little, but not enough to fire a coach whose team never quit.

The 73-62 loss to MTSU in early December stung, but Harper’s team bounced back with six straight wins.

And that gut-wrenching 74-73 loss to unbeaten South Carolina, the No. 1 team in the nation, in the SEC tournament had to count for something – but apparently not enough in White’s book.

The Lady Vols lost that game on a buzzer beating 3-point bank shot from a player who rarely fired from long range!

Yes, Harper’s team didn’t make it out of the NCAA’s second round in Raleigh, losing to No. 3 seed North Carolina State 79-72, but that defeat wasn’t so bad if you consider N.C. State made it to the Final Four and lost 78-59 in the semifinals to South Carolina.

Unfortunately, the UT athletic director already had pulled the plug on Coach Harper by then.

There are other things too that makes Kellie a good coach for a team.

I heard a story not long after Harper was fired about how she put her foot down on her top player’s repeated tardiness. Rickea Jackson responded with how she had never been disciplined and sincerely thanked her coach for correcting her.

That is an example of “life skills” in the statement Coach Harper made when she learned she had lost her job.

“I am grateful for the opportunity my staff and I have had to lead an amazing group of young women and to mentor them on the court as well as provide them with life skills that will benefit them far beyond the game of basketball,” she said.

That’s called class.

Before Coach Phil Fulmer hired Harper for the Tennessee position, she had finished her sixth year at Missouri State, guiding a young Lady Bears team to the NCAA Sweet 16 before falling to No. 2 Stanford 55-46.

Fulmer, then UT’s athletic director, recalled how Kellie made the decision easy for him. He set out in the interview process to hire the “best coach” for the job and that gender or ties to Tennessee didn’t matter.

“It became clear that a Lady Vol would be really great, and then Kellie knocked it out of the park (in the interview),” said Fulmer, who added that Kellie sometimes even sounds like Summitt.

Both Pat and Kellie, by the way, also grew up in a small Tennessee town and lived and worked on a farm.

If Coach Summitt were still living and retired from coaching, what do you think she would say to Danny White about this change in coaches?

My guess is probably nothing, but she would give him that stare!

Harper finishes her Lady Vols coaching tenure with a 108-52 record, including 53-24 in conference play. She has become one of only two coaches to take four different programs to the NCAA Tournament and is just seven victories shy of career win No. 400.