The hire of Kellie Harper as Tennessee’s women’s basketball coach — or, more specifically, the press conference introducing her — begs the question: Just who is in charge of things at the University of Tennessee Athletics Department?
If you said Phillip Fulmer, you would apparently be wrong. Fulmer might be the athletics director, but when it comes to women’s basketball, at least, he appears to be little more than a figurehead.
Fulmer’s hire of Kellie Harper — casual Lady Vol fans know her as Kellie Jolly, the point guard who helped Pat Summitt’s teams to three consecutive national championships in the late 1990s — was lauded in some circles, primarily by fans of the women’s basketball program who insisted that Fulmer hire a woman and a former Summitt player. It was decried in other circles, by those who said she wasn’t qualified for the job.
Holly Warlick, who was fired by Fulmer after her team was ousted in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, had hardly received her walking papers before speculation began that Tennessee was pursuing Louisville’s Jeff Walz. In just over a decade with the Cardinals, Walz has led his team to the NCAAT every year except one, including two Final Four appearances and two more Elite Eight appearances. There were reports that Walz would take the Tennessee job, if it were offered to him.
The so-called “old guard” among the Lady Vols fan base just as immediately began to resist the move. Some were blatant enough to insist that it would be a slap in the face to Summitt if a male were chosen to carry on her legacy, while others simply said that Tennessee should stay within the family.
More casual fans dismissed the lobbying from the other side, saying that the most qualified person should be chosen for the job — regardless of gender or ties to the program.
That led to a lot of discussion over just who should be chosen. The old guard was so insistent about hiring a former player that there was even considerable talk about choosing Kara Lawson, a former point guard in the early 2000s who spent some time in the WNBA and is now an ESPN commentator. Lawson has no coaching experience at any level.
Eventually, the search appeared to center on Harper, and news broke late Monday that she had been hired by Fulmer. She was introduced at a Wednesday afternoon press conference.
Harper really nailed it during her turn at the mic on Wednesday. She said all the right things and said them the right way, appearing very much like a coach who is prepared to rebuild Tennessee into the nation’s most prominent women’s basketball program.
Then came Fulmer’s turn. His remarks were interesting, to say the least.
Nothing about Fulmer’s turn at the mic did much to inspire confidence. The UTAD chief came off as largely disinterested. Some chalked it up to fatigue. While he was in the final stages of his search for a women’s basketball coach, he had to involve himself in intense negotiations to avoid losing his men’s basketball coach — Rick Barnes — to UCLA.
But Fulmer’s comments were more interesting than his demeanor.
Fulmer said he entered the search with “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.'”
That would reflect the opinion of a majority of Tennessee fans, most likely.
Fulmer also said that there was considerable interest in the job — which is to be expected since Tennessee is arguably still the nation’s preeminent women’s basketball program.
“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.
What he didn’t say but might as well have: “We could have had any coach we wanted.” That should be expected.
But then, Fulmer said, athletics department administrators convinced him that he should go a different route. He named them, too: Angie Boyd-Keck, Donna Thomas and Tara Brooks.
“It became clear that a Lady Vol would be really great,” Fulmer said.
In other words, it was made clear to him that he was to hire a Lady Vol.
Harper is a feel-good hire. She comes from an All-American family just down the road in Sparta, Tenn. She played a pivotal role at the height of the Summitt era, helping the team win three national championships. She was a fan favorite as a player. Her brother, Brent, was a standout player on Jeff Lebo’s Tennessee Tech teams in the early 2000s.
It will be easy to root for Harper to excel. She will endear herself to the Tennessee fan base. Even those who have been critical of the hire will embrace her.
And, to be fair, Harper just took Missouri State to the Sweet Sixteen. It was her second NCAAT appearance in six years there.
But she never won the Missouri Valley Conference in those six years. And her only experience at a Power 5 program ended when she was fired by NC State after four years. There, she had a 23-39 record in ACC play.
If Tennessee’s goal was to hire someone with close ties to the program, mission accomplished. If the goal was to hire the best coach available, it’s hard to sell the Harper hire as being that. But, either way, Fulmer’s comments were remarkable. Clearly, here was an administrator who had been told what to do and is not completely sold that he hired the right person — and he didn’t even try to hide it.