Life has come full circle, or in this case, full-court for Lady Vol Head Coach Kellie Harper.
Memories fill the arena, the same arena where the former point guard helped lead the Lady Vols to three, consecutive NCAA National Championships in 1996, 1997 and 1998.
“We had all the bells and whistles back then,” said Harper, looking around the newly renovated Lady Vols locker room inside Thompson Boling Arena. “Actually, the only thing that’s the same is the tradition poll. That’s the only thing that looks the same.”
Looking the same or not, she hit the ground running when she returned.
“Our first practice in September, I walked out on the court, the players weren’t out there, and I almost welled up with tears… you feel Pat Summitt’s presence,” said Harper.
And, that feeling motivates Coach Harper.
“I know there’s going to be comparisons, I get it, but I just don’t feel like I have to be her (Pat).”
Harper has been in the zone since arriving on Rocky Top, recruiting and rallying her team to an undefeated start including an on-the-road upset against ranked Notre Dame.
She has also been busy re-acclimating her young family. Harper’s oldest, Jackson, started kindergarten this year.
“He loves to talk which sometimes as a kindergarten student may not be the best skill.”
And, her 1-year-old daughter, Kiley, isn’t quite sleeping through the night.
“Everyone told me going from one to two (children) was exponential, but I really didn’t know what that meant and now I do. It’s a lot.”
That’s especially true when you throw in two coaches’ schedules and a house renovation. For now, home is a 2-bedroom condo.
“We’re busting at the seams,” laughed Harper. “In a year from now, we’re going to look back and we’re going to laugh. We’ll make fun of ourselves and ask how we did it.
As you can tell, Coach Harper is pretty laid back.
“I don’t get riled up about things very often, at least not the little things,” said Harper. “I don’t like people attacking my team. I don’t like people attacking my kids, my family. And, I don’t do drama.”
Harper works with her husband Lady Vol Assistant Coach John Harper.
“For us, coaching together works. People think we spend every waking hour together and we don’t,” Harper said. “We’re on different schedules. We come home, see the kids. I put one to bed, he puts one to bed. I mean, we literally could go days without speaking.”
Harper said her husband enjoys behind the scenes but isn’t afraid to run interference.
“He’s going to push me more than anybody else would. Sometimes I think my assistant coaches collaborate and he gets to be the person to come and present some idea to me.”
Can she beat him in hoops?
“We have learned that the best thing for our marriage is to not compete. We are off the charts competitive.”
As a player, Harper watched Pat Summitt balance motherhood and coaching with ease.
“She was superwoman, that’s what I saw.”
But Harper said her best parenting advice came from Drake University Head Coach Jennie Baranczyk.
“She said, ‘My one piece of advice for you is to take him everywhere. You’ll be a better coach and a better mother if you do that.’”
Harper has followed that advice.
By the age of 2, her son, Jackson, had been to 22 states. And, it’s rubbed off. Jackson’s pressing to play.
“I know as soon as we put him on a team I’m going to want to be there all the time and I’m not going to be able to and that’s going to be a big blow to me as a mom.”
Kiley’s still too young but seems to have natural instincts.
“She’s more aggressive than Jackson,” said Harper. “Maybe she gets that from me!”
There’s no question where Harper’s love of basketball comes from. Her father, the late Kenneth Jollie, taught her the game.
“Even when he wasn’t an official coach, he was my coach. He was the guy drawing up plays on the napkin in the restaurant.”
He also shared countless life lessons.
“He was a great human being. I mean literally one of the best human beings you could be around. My dad was always doing the right thing. And, he would’ve wanted to be a part of this.”
As Harper merges the past with the present, the former point guard, now head coach, is ready to lead her team once again to victory.
“We’re running out space,” said Harper, looking at the Lady Vol trophy case. “But, I will find space for championship trophies, I promise you that!”
With a fierce drive, a competitive edge and a push from Pat Summitt above.
“In her southern twang, her Tennessee accent that I get. I hear her (Pat) saying, ‘Well, you better get to work!’”