Kellie Harper out at Tennessee: What’s next for Lady Vols?

On April 8, 2019, Tennessee announced Kellie Harper as its new women’s basketball coach. It was her dream job: She was going back to her alma mater, the school where she won three national championships as a player. The mutual excitement of Harper and fans of the Lady Vols was through the roof.

But five years later, Tennessee has fired Harper after she wasn’t able to get past the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. Tennessee has won eight NCAA titles but hasn’t been to the Final Four since 2008. In the SEC, Tennessee has fallen behind both South Carolina and LSU, winners of the past two national championships.

Harper experienced the same thing that her predecessor, Holly Warlick, did: The realization that as difficult as you think it will be to follow the legendary coach Pat Summitt, it’s even harder.

The last three teams that Harper lost to in the NCAA tournament –Louisville in 2022, Virginia Tech in 2023 and NC State this year — advanced to the Final Four. With most other programs, finishing no lower than fourth in your conference over five years and making two Sweet 16 appearances and two NCAA second-round appearances (there was no NCAA tournament in 2020 due to COVID-19) probably gets a contract extension for a coach.

Harper, who has coached four different programs to the NCAA tournament, owns a career record of 393-260 in 20 years as a head coach.

Whoever takes over the Lady Vols has to know the clock is ticking on getting back to the Final Four as soon as they step into the head coach’s office.

Even so, with a massive fan base and winning tradition, Tennessee is still a major destination job. What went wrong for Harper, and who will the Lady Vol program turn to next?

Recruiting is the name of the game

Tennessee has had some talent during Harper’s tenure, but not enough. Especially in comparison to South Carolina and LSU. This hurt Harper as much as anything.

Harper took over months after Jordan Horston, the No. 2 recruit in the Class of 2019 according to ESPN HoopGurlz, already had committed to the Lady Vols under Warlick. Horston finished her career last season and was drafted ninth by the WNBA’s Seattle Storm.

Since then, according to HoopGurlz rankings, Tennessee has struggled to land the most coveted recruits. The highest-ranked recruit was 57th in 2020, 43rd in 2021, none in the top 100 in 2023, and 35th in 2024.

The Lady Vols signed No. 11 Justine Pissott in 2022, but she transferred after one season to Vanderbilt. As of now, Tennessee has No. 16 Nyla Brooks as a 2025 commitment.

Recruiting is more challenging than ever in today’s NIL world. But Tennessee, a program that used to be a contender for top-five recruits every year, hasn’t been able to compete in that race under Harper.

The Lady Vols did nab a star from the transfer portal in Rickea Jackson, who has been their top scorer the past two seasons. It still wasn’t enough. Recruiting feels like it is 24/7 now with the portal, and Harper’s replacement will need some big wins there.

Contrasts to SEC’s ‘Big Two’ put Tennessee in a harsh spotlight

Tennessee was the leader of the pack in the SEC for decades under Summitt. Other programs periodically challenged the Lady Vols for brief periods, but no one could keep up with them.

Summitt announced in 2011 she had early onset-dementia, Alzheimer’s type, and then retired in 2012. Her longtime assistant Warlick, who had been the de-facto head coach in 2011-12, officially took over.

Warlick had a very different personality than Summitt, her friend and former coach (Warlick played at Tennessee from 1976-80). Warlick had to navigate in-house turmoil at Tennessee as the men’s and women’s athletic departments merged, the grief over Summitt’s illness and subsequent death in 2016, and a changing landscape nationally and in the SEC as coach Dawn Staley made South Carolina the league’s top program.

LSU has had success in the past, including five consecutive Final Four appearances from 2004-2008. But the program had fallen away from that peak. Then Kim Mulkey, who coached Baylor to three national championships, took over at LSU in the spring of 2021.

In her second season, Mulkey led LSU to the 2023 NCAA title.

Harper had to deal with comparisons to South Carolina, LSU, every other good program in the country and Tennessee’s legendary past. It was too much.



Gamecocks’ Cardoso drills game-winning triple vs. Lady Vols

Kamilla Cardoso hits her first-ever collegiate 3-pointer in the final second of South Carolina’s 74-73 semifinal win to overcome UT’s vicious comeback.

Tennessee’s 74-73 loss to South Carolina on March 9 probably didn’t change anything about Harper’s fate. The Lady Vols were closer than any team this season to giving the Gamecocks their first loss. But they allowed the game-winning shot to center Kamilla Cardoso, who made the first 3-pointer of her college career.

It didn’t help Harper that the shot of Cardoso’s banked-in 3 was replayed over and over on television and the Internet, with Tennessee looking confused defensively by not guarding the inbound passer or Cardoso … followed by Harper’s look of sheer anguish on the sideline.

Is it time for Tennessee to move beyond the ‘orange line’?

From Summitt to Warlick to Harper, Tennessee’s coaching has had 50 years of connection. All Tennessee natives. Warlick and Harper played for Summitt. Lady Vols through and through.

The question now: Should Tennessee go another direction for its next head coach?

Kara Lawson, a Lady Vols alum who led the Duke Blue Devils to the Sweet 16 this season, likely came to mind immediately for many as a potential replacement. But does she want to take on the Summitt legacy and expectations, especially since she is building her own thing now at Duke?

Would she be the right fit? Or would Tennessee be best — as painful as it might be to longtime fans — to bring in someone with no connection to the Lady Vols’ past?

Tennessee’s administration must decide. But by firing Harper, they’ve sent a clear message about what the expectations are.

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