Kellie Harper out as Tennessee women’s basketball coach

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) – Kellie Harper will not return to the University of Tennessee as women’s basketball head coach next season, UT announced Monday.

Athletics Director Danny White made the decision, saying it took a lot of thought.

“After a thorough review of our women’s basketball program, I have informed Kellie we are making a change in leadership. Decisions like these are never easy to make, especially with someone who has done so much for the Lady Vols as a three-time national champion student-athlete. Her love and passion for Tennessee and the Lady Vols is second to none. She has invested so much heart and soul into our program and truly has given her all for Tennessee. I thank Kellie for her stewardship of our women’s basketball program and wish her and Jon well in the next chapter of their lives.”

Now, the university is conducting a nationwide search for Harper’s replacement, White said.

“After seeking input from our student-athletes, I will begin an aggressive search process to find the next leader for our iconic women’s basketball program,” said White. “To protect the integrity of this process, you will not hear from me until we are ready to announce our new head coach.”

One of only two coaches to guide four different programs at the NCAA Tournament, the 1999 UT graduate and three-time national champion Harper led the Lady Vols to a 108-52 record. She spent five seasons as head coach on Rocky Top.

“It has been an honor to serve at my alma mater and to coach a Lady Vol program I love so dearly,” Harper said. “I am grateful for the opportunity my staff and I have had to lead an amazing group of young women and to mentor them on the court as well as provide them with life skills that will benefit them far beyond the game of basketball.”

According to Harper’s employment contract, she was being paid $275,000 in base pay from the university. That’s not all she got, however. The university also offered her supplemental pay for things like broadcast, endorsement and other related work. When Harper started, that number was $475,000, but her latest contract extension brought that pay up to $825,000.

As for a payout, Harper is owed one of two amounts.

If she was fired before April 1, she’s entitled to all of her base and supplemental pay through 2027, or $1.1 million each year. If she was fired after March 31, she’ll get half that pay through 2028, which comes to $550,000 per year through 2028.

Year One – 2019-20

Kellie “Jolly” Harper began her tenure as head coach of the Lady Vols with a 7-0 record and recorded the most victories in her first season at a school. The Lady Vols reached No. 17 in the AP Poll rankings that season and finished tied for third place in the SEC before the season ended prematurely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Year 2 – 2020-21

In Harper’s second year, the Lady Vols reached No. 13 in the AP Poll and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. With the pandemic still playing a major role in scheduling, the Lady Vols had four games canceled due to COVID, and the roster endured severe blows after losing three post players to season-ending injuries. UT finished in third place in the SEC and racked up four big wins against ranked teams including No. 2 South Carolina in Knoxville and No. 15 Indiana on the road.

Year 3 – 2021-22

Injuries continued to plague the Lady Vols in Harper’s third season at the helm. Three season-ending injuries put a dampener on the team’s hot 18-1 start to the season, which was the best start for the program since 2007-08. The Lady Vols defeated five ranked teams and reached as high as No. 4 in the AP Poll, finishing in third place in the SEC with a conference record of 11-5 and an overall record of 25-9, matching Harper’s personal best for wins in a season. Harper also reached her second Sweet 16, which was a first for UT since 2015-16. The Tennessee Sports Writers Association named Harper the State Women’s College Basketball Coach of the Year.

Year 4 – 2022-23

In Harper’s fourth season, the Lady Vols recorded their second consecutive 25-win season finishing with a record of 25-12. This was the first time the Lady Vols had finished with back-to-back 25-win seasons since 2013-14 and 2014-15. The Lady Vols reached third place in the SEC for the fourth consecutive year with a record of 13-3, which was the most conference wins the program had had since 2014-15. The Lady Vols also took their first trip to the SEC Tournament title game since 2015 and advanced to their second consecutive Sweet 16 appearance. With Harper leading UT to back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances and 25-win seasons for the first time in her career, she matched the legendary Pat Summitt’s UT record by producing a first-found WNBA Draft pick for a third straight season.

Year 5 – 2023-24

After a rough start to the season, Harper coached the Lady Vols to a 20-13 overall record and a 10-6 record in SEC play. The Lady Vols lost in heartbreaking fashion to No. 1 South Carolina on a banked-in buzzer-beater in the SEC Tournament semifinals and fell to NC State in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament.

WVLT News spoke with a student who talked about Harper’s ousting as head coach.

“With NIL and everything, it gets tough to get players in that are kind of caliber that Tennessee needs, but at the end of the day, we need to get a championship. We need to bring one home, so that’s why I’m looking for anyone that can do that,” said Jack Hauke, a junior at UT. “Just sports in general, it helps the school thrive is a whole. You start seeing more and more people walking around, more people wearing orange and more people coming to campus. It brings a lot of people to school, so I do think any sport that we can get rolling pretty hot is pretty good.”

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