Phillip Fulmer: 'Essential' to hire coach with Lady Vols ties, like Kellie Harper
Kellie Harper walked past the Tennessee women's basketball trophy case on Wednesday, looked at the hardware and smiled.
“It’s a little surreal when you walk by the national championship trophies," Harper said.
Harper was part of winning three of those trophies as a Lady Vols point guard who played for Pat Summitt in the late 1990s. Now it's her job to refuel the program as its coach.
Harper received a five-year deal worth $750,000 annually.
Athletic director Phillip Fulmer said it became apparent during the hiring process that he needed to hire someone with ties to the program.
Harper understands well the history of the program she inherited and the coach who built it.
“I’m not here to try to be Pat Summitt,” Harper said. “I’m here to be Kellie, who learned from Pat Summitt. And hopefully you’ll see that.”
“I do understand the gravity of this position,” she added, “and I am humbled, I am honored, and I am ready to take on this journey.”
Phillip Fulmer explains hiring process
Fulmer said it “was essential” to hire someone with Lady Vols ties, although he didn’t begin the hiring process with that line of thinking.
“I was a bit in the mindset of, ‘We need to find the best coach. Male, female, Lady Vol, not, just whoever is going to be the best at this moment,’” Fulmer said. “I’m telling you, it became very clear to me as the interview process started that we had our choice in the country of coaches to talk to.”
Fulmer said athletic department administrators Angie Boyd-Keck, Donna Thomas and Tara Brooks told him the importance of hiring someone with a connection to the program.
“As we went through a grinding process — and our staff did a grinding search — it became clear that a Lady Vol would be really great,” Fulmer said. “Then Kellie knocked it out of the park.”
Kellie Harper returns to Tennessee
Harper, then Kellie Jolly, won three straight national championships as a Tennessee player from 1996-98. She was an honorable mention Associated Press All-America selection as a senior in 1999.
Harper remembers Summitt telling her that she one day would coach the program.
“I really brushed that off, because in my mind, that was Pat Summitt’s job, and that was going to be Pat Summitt’s job forever,” Harper said.
Harper spent the past six seasons as the coach at Missouri State, which reached the Sweet 16 this season. She's also coached at North Carolina State and Western Carolina.
A Sparta, Tennessee, native, Harper's all-time record is 285-208 across her 15-year head coaching career.
Harper’s stock is perhaps as high as ever after Missouri State’s 25-win season. She’s endured highs and lows throughout her 15-year career. N.C. State hired her in 2009 to replace Kay Yow, months after Yow died from breast cancer. Harper was fired after leading the Wolfpack to one NCAA Tournament in four seasons.
“It was just a really interesting situation, and obviously it had its challenges, and I think I’ve grown as a coach,” Harper said. “I’ve learned a lot and really been able to apply a lot of those lessons to my coaching moving forward.”
Asked about Harper’s tenure at N.C. State, which went 23-39 in ACC play under Harper, Fulmer reiterated her Lady Vol ties.
“When she talked about Tennessee, she talked about her teammates and Pat, there was a reverence there that was really, really special,” Fulmer said. “We felt like that was the right way to go.”
Harper rejuvenated Missouri State. Now, she's returned home, where the challenge that awaits her is personal.
“This is my dream job,” Harper said.