KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Kellie Jolly has come home, twenty years later.
She's Kellie Harper now. The spunky Lady Vol point guard that won three national championships at Tennessee is now a head coach with almost two decades of experience.
And now she's just the third head coach of the modern Lady Vols, one of the most revered programs in college basketball. Her dream job.
"I'm so so excited to be home. When you give everything you have to a program and you have this opportunity its indescribable. Extremely special. I'm ready to get to work," she said.
She talked a lot about how special it was to return to campus with her husband, John, and kids, Jackson and Kiley. She walked by the trophy case containing eight National Championship trophies and was able to point out herself in pictures to her children.
But you know someone was missing.
"When I walked up here, I could look out the door and I could see a statue out there. That moment was not lost on me," she said.
Pat Summitt Plaza, with the statue of the legendary coach we all lost to Alzheimer's disease in 2016, is right across the street. You can't talk about the Lady Vols without talking about her, and Harper knows that.
"I hope Pat is smiling down today. I think about her often. I know that's going to happen more frequently," she said. But she also wanted to make it clear, "I'm not here to be Pat. I'm here to be Kellie who learned from Pat."
She knows this job is a huge responsibility. There are high expectations, not just to the school or the fans, but to women's basketball as a whole. She's expected to bring the Lady Vols back the national prominence they enjoyed for decades and deserve.
She says she's up for the job.
"Everyone knows the Lady Vols are great and historic. Not everyone knows what it's like to be in it, what it's like to put the jersey on and play for something so much bigger than yourself. I do understand the gravity of this position. I'm humbled. I'm honored. I'm ready to take on this journey," she said.
She knows there is some work to do. Harper says the biggest problem facing the Lady Vols right now is consistency. They have the talent.
She expects her team to be fun to watch and to pull for, to be tough, gritty, and high energy. They are going to play quick and aggressive, and be honored to wear the Tennessee jersey.
She has met the current players, but not been able to have any one-on-one time with any of them, including point guard Evina Westbrook, who has entered the NCAA transfer portal. She has also been able to talk to the recruits, who she says are still all in to be Lady Vols.
Staffing decisions are still being made, and that brings us to Holly Warlick.
"I'm going to be respectful to Holly," Harper said. "I played for Holly, I love Holly."
As Summitt's former player and longtime assistant, Warlick took over the reigns in 2012 when Summitt stepped aside because of her Alzheimer's disease diagnosis, an almost impossible position for anyone to be in. The team advanced to the Elite Eight three times and won three SEC championships in Warlick’s first four seasons as head coach, but haven’t reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament in the last three seasons. Warlick was let go late last month.
Harper said the two haven't had a chance to talk yet, but they will, and as you'd expect that could be a difficult conversation.
But her job is to take over the program from Warlick, and she hopes to emulate her former coach in how she runs it. Harper said one of the many things she learned from Summitt was to run a classy program, to treat people the right way.
"That's something I've always tried to mimic," she said.
She also said Summitt coached with poise, and was able to pass that on to her players during a tight game. She said that gave the Lady Vols the confidence to leave the huddle and win.
Harper said Summitt used to joke with her that she'd probably come back to Tennessee and coach someday. She said she laughed it off, because "that was Pat's job."
Now it's hers. Her journey back to Tennessee took her through four other schools and she gave it her all at each one of them. But now she's home, and it just means more.
"I'm pretty competitive. I want to win, but there's no other place I want to do it more than here," she said.
UT Athletic Director Phillip Fulmer is confident that Harper can do that, but there's more to being the coach of the Lady Vols.
"It was very clear that we had to find a person that truly understood that understood the foundation that Pat Summitt and the other coaches and players laid at Tennessee," he said.
There was a lot of interest in the position, Fulmer said, and they spoke of Tennessee with reverence. He called the Lady Vols the 'Mecca' of women's basketball.
He said Harper came to the interview with a clear plan and vision for the Lady Vols. He said she truly cares about her players and will support and nurture them academically, socially, and athletically.
Under Harper, he said, "The Lady Vols will be what the world has come to expect and admire from the Lady Vols."
He also said he thought his old friend Pat would be thrilled that Harper got the job.
Harper, then Kellie Jolly, played for Pat Summitt at Tennessee, winning three national championships including the program’s only undefeated season in 1998. The point guard from Sparta, Tennessee, set things up for All-Americans Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings to make plays. Jolly was at her best on the biggest stage, scoring a career-high 20 points in the 1998 national championship game and dished out a Final Four record 11 assists in the 1997 title game. The Lady Vols compiled a 131-17 record in her four seasons on campus.
Harper has made five NCAA Tournament appearances in 15 years as a head coach. She spent the last six seasons with Missouri State. Before that she was the head coach at North Carolina State and Western Carolina. She also assisted at Chattanooga and Auburn.
Her husband, Jon Harper, has worked as an assistant coach on her staff at all three of her head coaching stops.
Harper is the fifth head coach in the 50-year modern history of the Lady Vol program. Tennessee is the only basketball program to make it to all 38 NCAA Tournaments and boasts 18 Final Four appearances and eight national championships. The Lady Vols haven’t reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament in the last three seasons, something that only happened once previously in the history of the program.
Harper’s worst finish as a player at Tennessee was an Elite Eight loss to Duke in her senior year.