Kellie Harper returns home to coach Tennessee

Kellie Harper led Tennessee to national championships as a player for Pat Summitt. Next, she hopes to restore the Lady Vols to prominence. Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

Kellie Harper takes over a Tennessee women's basketball program that has been surrounded of late by bittersweet nostalgia, clear-eyed pragmatism and frustrated pessimism. But there's also a lot of hopeful optimism in Lady Vols nation. Harper will have to navigate all of that.

Harper, the Tennessee native and former Lady Vols player, "came home" on Wednesday, and for those in support of her replacing Holly Warlick, this is an especially happy day. For those who think Tennessee should have aimed higher -- getting a coach who already has had success at a Power 5 school -- this is a time of trepidation.

Was Harper, who spent the past six seasons at Missouri State, the right hire? Only time will tell. But there are good points to be made in support of Harper.

Some might say that with her coaching résumé, which includes four years at NC State following the legendary Kay Yow, Harper wouldn't have gotten this job if she weren't a former Tennessee player. And that's true. But that doesn't mean she isn't the right choice.

Women's basketball history matters at Tennessee -- probably more than it does at any school in the United States -- because the timeline of the Lady Vols' influence is so expansive. By the same token, the past can't overshadow the present or the future. If Harper does this right, all three can coexist.

"I can look right out this door and see a statue over there. That was not lost on me," Harper said Wednesday at a news conference in Knoxville, Tennessee, referencing the likeness of Pat Summitt that stands just outside Thompson-Boling Arena. "I hope that Pat Summitt is smiling down today. I think about her often. I'm not here to try to be Pat Summitt. I'm here to be Kellie, who learned from Pat Summitt."

Harper was at the pinnacle of her playing career two decades ago, when Summitt and her Lady Vols were the most powerful program in women's basketball.

Harper -- then Kellie Jolly -- was the point guard for the national champions in 1998, as Tennessee went 38-0 and won its third NCAA title in a row and sixth overall. No other program at that time had more than two NCAA championships; UConn had one. Harper knows what it's like to be the best.

Detractors, though, are worried that Harper might be too much an extension of Warlick and what didn't work as well as hoped during her seven years as head coach after 29 as an assistant. They're concerned that Tennessee stayed too insular with this choice, that athletic director Phillip Fulmer put too much emphasis on that. And there's no doubt that he made it paramount.

"It was essential, I think," Fulmer said when asked about Harper's Tennessee pedigree. "It became clear to me as the interview process started that we had our choice of coaches to talk to. As we went through the process, it became clear that a Lady Vol would be really great. And Kellie knocked it out of the park."

That's the easy part for Harper: talking about her unquestioned love for Tennessee and the things she learned playing for Summitt. The hard part is that it's a changed women's basketball world from Harper's playing days, when Tennessee was so dominant in the SEC and the country.

It's the greatest thing to be on top -- until you're not anymore and the fall has left you bruised and uncertain. For Tennessee, some degree of this fall back to the pack was inevitable. All the work Summitt did promoting and growing the game was eventually going to lead to a time when Tennessee would be regularly challenged and sometimes overtaken.

Summitt understood that because she had such a sense of the big picture. That had already started to happen in 1998. Summitt's willingness to play anyone anywhere had elevated other programs, Duke among them, and the Blue Devils ended Tennessee's chance to "four-peat" in 1999, Harper's senior year, by beating the Lady Vols in the Elite Eight.

Still, Tennessee was an acceptable version of "Tennessee" for nearly another decade, winning two national championships and making five other Final Fours between 2000 and 2008.

After losing five seniors, including Candace Parker, from the 2008 championship team, however, Tennessee lost in the NCAA tournament's first round for the first time in 2009 against Ball State. But the Lady Vols were back knocking on the door of a Final Four by 2011, when they lost in the Elite Eight. Later that year, Summitt got the diagnosis of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, and things would never be the same at Tennessee.

Summit stepped down in the spring of 2012, and Warlick took over, but it always seemed like Warlick was being judged against an impossible standard. And then, to be frank, even when the standard was realistic, Tennessee began to have trouble measuring up to that, too.

"I hope that Pat Summitt is smiling down today. I think about her often. I'm not here to try to be Pat Summitt. I'm here to be Kellie, who learned from Pat Summitt." Kellie Harper

It wasn't just that the Lady Vols lost in the NCAA tournament's early rounds the past three years. It was the losses in home games to opponents that Tennessee fans were used to owning for decades. It was a perceived lack of consistent effort from the players. It was that the Lady Vols no longer looked like the Lady Vols.

This season, Tennessee lost to Vanderbilt at home for the first time in a year when the Commodores were the worst team in the SEC. Then the Lady Vols fell in the first round of the NCAA tournament. That was juxtaposed with Harper's No. 11 seed Missouri State team looking gritty and inspirational while getting two upsets to make the Sweet 16. It was time for a change, and the timing for Harper -- with a team making a run in March Madness -- couldn't have been more fortuitous.

On Wednesday, Harper said there were a lot of oh-wow-this-is-real moments, but none more so than when she saw her two young children dressed in Tennessee gear. She can show them photos of herself winning national championships, wearing Tennessee orange, being a part of something so big. Now she's part of it in a different way.

Are the expectations huge? You bet. Will there be those fans who immediately pounce on any loss as proof that this was the wrong hire? Of course. But you can sense just how much Lady Vols fandom wants this to work. Yes, Warlick was one of their own, and it wasn't enough. Harper clearly knows that. She's well aware that she will have to produce.

But she can take assurance that this is something Summitt would have wanted. On Wednesday, Harper said that back when she was a player, Summitt told her that one day she might be the coach at Tennessee. In Harper's mind then, that was impossible.

"I thought that was Pat Summitt's job forever," Harper said. "When this opportunity came available ... this is my dream job."