By Dr. Harold A. Black

I am not a women’s basketball fan and thus have not paid much attention to all the adoration for Caitlin Clark. When I was on the faculty at the University of Tennessee, I went to very few of the Lady Vols games. I never could get over how many layups were missed in the women’s game, just like I have always been puzzled by how poor the free throw shooting is in the men’s game. Yet I was surprised and disappointed when UT fired its women’s coach, Kellie Harper. I served on UT’s athletic board and remembered her as a guard on three of Pat Summitt’s national championship teams. Harper became a very good coach and I was delighted when she came back to Knoxville to replace Holly Warlick who had followed Summitt. I thought Harper was doing an excellent job despite not being able to recruit 5-star caliber players. By the time she came to Knoxville, South Carolina was the dominant SEC team followed by LSU. Star players were more inclined to go to those newer powers than to UT. Likewise, one always had to compete with Gene Auriemma’s UConn teams. UConn had eclipsed Summitt’s UT teams when Summitt was still coaching. The women’s game had evolved where even UConn was no longer dominating the national scene. UConn was still unbeatable in the Big East but was only a number three seed in this year’s NCAA tournament.

At UT, Harper was a more than respectable 108-52 (.675). This season UT went 20-13, 10-6 in the SEC and lost to an undefeated South Carolina team on a last second lucky three-point shot by a player who had never before made a three-pointer. UT lost in the tournament to a North Carolina State team that made the Final 4. Harper had never gotten past the Sweet 16 and I guess that may have been her downfall. By firing her, Tennessee lost its best incoming recruits.

Harper’s firing is reminiscent of Texas’ firing of current Tennessee men’s coach Rick Barnes. Barnes has always been a very good coach. His Texas teams were always good and even great when they had unbelievable talent such as T J Ford and Kevin Durant. Barnes was 402-180 (.691) in Austin. He went to the Sweet 16 five times, to the Elite 8 three times and to the Final Four once. Ultimately he was fired despite that record. He could never win the big one.

At Tennessee, Barnes is 202-101 (.667). Tennessee has gone to 6 NCAA tournaments under Barnes. But similar to his tenure at Texas, Tennessee has been a disappointment in the tournament. They have been to the Elite 8 only twice and never played in the Final 4.

Harper’s record at Tennessee was similar to that of Barnes. She even has a higher winning percentage. Yet there is virtually no chance that Barnes will face the same fate as Harper. One wonders why. Vol great Kara Lawson (one of my former students) is the head coach at Duke. She was one of those rumored to be the next Tennessee coach but never interviewed for the job. Lawson has only been at Duke since 2020, is 69-33 overall and only 32-23 in the ACC – a conference not as strong as the SEC. Her team this year made it to their first Sweet Sixteen. Lawson is building a strong program at Duke and can make that her legacy. She cannot have that at Tennessee where Summitt looms larger than life. At Duke, she can become the women’s Mike Krzyzewski.  She cannot do that at Tennessee.

Meanwhile, UT has hired Marshall’s Kim Caldwell as its next women’s coach. Perhaps Danny White, UT’s athletic director, wanted to leave behind the shadow of Pat Summitt over the program. Caldwell has only been a head coach at the Division I level for one year. She was 26-7 and 17-1 in the Sun Belt conference at Marshall. But Marshall lost in the first round of the NCAAs. Perhaps White did not like Harper’s style of play. Caldwell favors a high-paced offense and a pressure defense. Of course, it really doesn’t matter if White is right. Whatever fate befalls Caldwell, the success or failure of women’s basketball is not going to impact Danny White’s job status at UT.