The comparisons will undoubtedly persist.
As long as Pat Summitt’s statue stands prominently across the street from the court that bears her name and as long as the crystal trophies sit on the shelves, anyone who takes the Tennessee women’s basketball head coaching job will be compared to her.
Holly Warlick knew it.
Kellie Harper knows it.
The standard that Summitt set in her 38 seasons as the face of women’s college basketball isn’t lost on Harper, because she lived it.
For four of those seasons, Harper had a hand in helping Tennessee claim consecutive NCAA National Championships in 1996, 1997 and 1998 as a point guard.
The lessons she learned during her time under Summitt’s tutelage as a player carried over into her own coaching career -- a career that lead her back to Knoxville on Wednesday where she was introduced as the Lady Vols’ third head coach in the NCAA era of women’s basketball.
“I hope that Pat Summitt is smiling down today,” Harper said at her introductory press conference on Wednesday. “I think about her often. I think it’s important to say, 'I’m not here to try to be Pat Summitt.' I’m here to be Kellie, who learned from Pat Summitt.”
For Tennessee Director of Athletics Phillip Fulmer, the man tasked with finding a coach who could restore the Tennessee program to the days when it was the exemplification of the game of women’s college basketball, hiring someone with a deep-rooted connection to both Summitt and the university was crucial.
“It was essential,” Fulmer said. “That was immediately told to me. I was a bit in the mindset of ‘we need to find the best coach, male or female.’ In our search, it became clear that a (former) Lady Vol would be great. Kellie knocked it out of the park.”
For Sparta, Tennessee, native Harper, the road from Lady Vol player to Lady Vols head coach was full of its own ups and downs.
After graduating from Tennessee in 1999, Harper began a 19-plus year career in coaching as an assistant at Auburn between 1999 and 2001 and then down the road at Chattanooga for four seasons under then-head coach and current NC State head coach Wes Moore.
The successes that Harper played a part in at Chattanooga landed her her first head coaching job at Western Carolina where she helped lead the Catamounts to four postseason finishes, three of which came in the NCAA Tournament.
From the hills of Cullowhee, North Carolina, Harper caught the eye of a major Power Five program in NC State.
The Wolfpack enjoyed two NCAA Tournament berths during Harper’s four-year stint, including six wins against top 25 teams in that span.
After a 26-23 career mark in ACC play, Harper was let go by NC State following the 2013 season.
Less than a month later, Harper landed on her feet in Springfield, Missouri, where she was given the job to revive another program that had a taste of glory in the not-so-distant past, Missouri State.
As life does, the experience of being fired taught Harper more about herself, both as a coach and a leader. According to Harper, the lessons learned at NC State were applied at Missouri State and will be applied again at Tennessee.
“Any experience that you get, both positive and negative, I think you learn from that,” Harper said. “Obviously (NC State) had its challenges, and I think I’ve grown as a coach. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve really been able to apply a lot of those lessons to my coaching.
“When I was hired at Western Carolina, I was the youngest coach in the country. A lot has changed about me since then.”
Harper’s own growth was put on full display over the past seven seasons at Missouri State, earning Kay Yow and Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year honors in 2019 after leading the Lady Bears to their first national ranking in 15 years and a Sweet Sixteen finish.
The successful run was enough to catch the eye of Fulmer and company and enough for the administration to hand the keys of one of the most historic women’s basketball programs over to Harper.
Only days into the job and the whole idea of it is still surreal for Harper.
“I’m so excited to be home,” Harper said. “When you give everything you have to a program and you have this opportunity, it’s indescribable and extremely special. I’m just ready to get to work.”