Breaking down the new Lady Vols’ new hire, historically.
Almost a year after the 2016 death of legendary Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, her successor and former player Holly Warlick wrote, “I see her statue every day just outside of our facility. Our court is named after her. There’s an empty chair on our bench in her memory. I’m confronted by her loss — personally and professionally — in so many visceral ways.”
Last month, Warlick was fired from Tennessee, making way for another one of Summitt’s former players, Kellie Jolly Harper. At her introductory press conference, Harper paid tribute to Summitt much like Warlick had: “when I walked up here, I [could] look outside and see a statue over there; that moment was not lost on me.”
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Nationally, some onlookers have panned the hire, calling Harper too similar to Warlick at a time when the program needs a new direction. But some Tennessee fans consider it blasphemous to hire an outsider after all that Summitt did for the program and for the sport as a whole. Others seem caught in between, wanting both a return to the glory days and the start of a new and distinct Lady Vol dynasty in response to a 19-13 season and an unthinkable 11-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Usually, you can’t have it both ways, and Harper will be hard-pressed to balance tradition with turning the page. But, for now—until the Tennessee faithful have some on-court results by which to judge whether Harper was the right choice—I think I can give both sides something to like about this hire.
A nod to history: How Harper is similar to Warlick
Let’s start with the obvious: Harper and Warlick are both Tennessee natives and former Lady Vols guards—though many people don’t know that Warlick originally came to UT on a track scholarship and walked onto the basketball team. (Warlick later recounted that Summitt watched her play once in high school and “didn’t like what she saw. … I never heard from her again. It’s a good thing I was fast.”)
Neither player lost much in college. In Warlick’s four seasons (1976-80), the Lady Vols went 118-23 and advanced to three Final Fours—the first in school history. With Warlick as an assistant coach and Harper (then Kellie Jolly) as a player from 1995-99, the Lady Vols went 131-17 and won three national championships. Warlick and Harper also had remarkably similar scoring outputs as players: Warlick scored 891 career points to Harper’s 894, which works out to 6.3 and 6.8 points per game, respectively. The highest season average for either player was Harper’s 8.4 points per game as a sophomore. (However, it should be noted that the 3-point line was not introduced until 1987-88 and was therefore not in effect for Warlick’s playing career.)
Despite not posting gaudy scoring numbers, both players received national accolades in recognition of their all-around games. Warlick was a three-time All-American and ranks second in program history in career assists (673, or 4.8 per game). Amazingly, she also ranks ninth in career steals (250, or 3.2 per game) even though steals were not an official NCAA stat until her junior year, so her “career” number only counts her final two seasons. Harper was an honorable mention All-American as a senior and ranks seventh in program history in career assists (452, or 3.4 per game) and tenth in career 3-point shooting percentage (36.4%).
Many Tennessee fans take comfort in the fact that the head coach will still be a former player of Summitt’s, someone who can pass down Summitt’s principles and values and, hopefully, win NCAA championships like eight of Summitt’s teams did. Athletic director Phillip Fulmer cited that tradition as a key reason for choosing Harper: “[Harper] has bled for the Lady Vols. … When she talked about Tennessee, she talked about her teammates and Pat Summitt. There was a reverence there that was really special.”
As coaches, Warlick and Harper took different paths back to Knoxville, but both had mixed records away from their alma mater. While Warlick was an assistant coach at Virginia Tech and Nebraska, her teams won a combined 50.5% of their games. Harper has been an assistant at two schools and a head coach at three; she has a 61.8% winning percentage overall and 57.8% as a head coach. In four seasons as the head coach of North Carolina State (her highest-profile job prior to Tennessee), Harper’s winning percentage was 52.2%. Many observers have pointed to these uninspiring winning percentages as evidence that Fulmer overvalued giving the job to a Lady Vol alumna.
A fresh start: How Harper is different from Warlick
As you might have deduced from the previous paragraph, Harper is a much more experienced coach than Warlick was when Warlick returned to Knoxville in 1985. Warlick then coached under Pat Summitt for the next 27 seasons, so she had ample coaching experience by the time she succeeded Summitt in 2012, but Tennessee was Warlick’s first head-coaching position. Contrast that with Harper, who enters the 2019-20 season with 15 years’ experience as a head coach at Western Carolina, North Carolina State, and Missouri State. Her teams have been to five NCAA Tournaments and seven WNITs, including a Sweet Sixteen run with Missouri State in 2019.
Harper’s time at North Carolina State is especially interesting here, but not because of her aforementioned on-court struggles. Harper succeeded Kay Yow mere months after the legendary coach’s death in January 2009, which makes her uniquely prepared to shoulder the weight of Summitt’s legacy at Tennessee. At her introductory press conference, Harper reflected on each of her three head-coaching stops and how they will help her at Tennessee:
"“I think anywhere you go, any experience that you have, either positive or negative, you learn from it. Going over to N.C. State after Coach Yow was a really interesting situation, and it had its challenges. I think I have grown as a coach. I have learned a lot and have really been able to apply those lessons to my coaching moving forward. You do that in any situation. When I was hired as the head coach at Western Carolina, I was the youngest coach in the country, and a lot has changed about me since then.”"
Looking back on Harper and Warlick’s playing careers, their paths were much less similar after graduating from Tennessee. Harper was drafted by the Cleveland Rockers in 1999, but she played in just one WNBA game that summer and transitioned into coaching in the fall of 1999 as an administrative assistant at Auburn. Warlick was a member of the 1980 Olympic team — though the U.S. ultimately boycotted those Games in Moscow—and became an All-Star in the WBPL (a predecessor of the WNBA). This difference likely has little bearing on how Harper will fare at Tennessee, but it’s worth appreciating how much Holly Warlick was a trailblazer for the women’s game and for the Lady Vols program. (Warlick was also the first Tennessee athlete ever, male or female, to have her jersey retired.)
The 2019-20 season will be the first without Holly Warlick on the Tennessee sideline in 35 years. It is undeniably sad any time a coach as dedicated and tenured as Warlick is fired, but Harper’s hire is also incredibly exciting. Harper faces a lot of pressure, especially with a game at UConn next January that will be the teams’ first meeting since 2007. But with that pressure, there is also a huge opportunity for Harper to push her alma mater back into the top ten; to make the deepest NCAA Tournament run of her coaching career; and to begin a “Kellie Harper era” at UT, distinct from that of Pat Summitt but worth celebrating all the same.
(All stats from Harper’s and Warlick’s Tennessee playing careers and Warlick’s coaching career are courtesy of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball website. Stats from Harper’s coaching career are courtesy of the Missouri State women’s basketball website. Some calculations are by the author; any errors are my own.)
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