Under Pat Summitt, the expectations for the Lady Vols’ basketball program were simple: It was Final Four or bust. If Tennessee didn’t make a deep run in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament or even win the championship, the season was considered a disappointment by many.
But over the last decade, expectations have slipped for the Lady Vols as the product on the court has continued to degrade.
Summitt led the Lady Vols to a national championship in 2008, marking the second-straight season they took home the title. It was the eighth time the Lady Vols had won the title in women’s basketball. But since that achievement, Tennessee has never even made it back to the Final four.
The Lady Vols were shockingly eliminated in the first round of the 2009 tournament, then they made it only as far as the Sweet Sixteen in 2010. Summitt’s 2011 and 2012 tournament teams made runs to the Elite Eight, but the Final Four still eluded them.
Then, Summitt stepped down because of a diagnosis of early onset dementia. Her long-time assistant and former player, Holly Warlick, took over as head coach, and Warlick was tasked with trying to get the Lady Vols back to their first Final Four since 2008.
Unfortunately for her and the program, that never happened.
Warlick’s teams reached the Elite Eight in three of her first four seasons, but that’s as far as they ever got. In fact, Tennessee never even got to the Sweet Sixteen in Warlick’s final three seasons as head coach.
Now, the task has fallen to Kellie Harper, only the third head coach of the Lady Vols in the NCAA era of women’s hoops. And she’s not shying away from the traditional expectations of the Lady Vols’ program.
Harper was introduced as Tennessee’s next head coach in women’s basketball on Wednesday, and she’s spent a lot of the rest of this week going on a large media tour to ingratiate herself to Vol fans. She appeared on 104.5 The Zone in Nashville as a guest, and she was asked about those lofty expectations traditionally associated with the Lady Vols.
Is it fair to expect Harper to take the Lady Vols to a Final Four early in her tenure as head coach?
“People are going to want that anyways, so might as well go ahead and put it out there,” Harper replied with a chuckle. “I know the expectations here, I get it. I’m very well aware of what it is. I’m excited about it because we want to win championships here. I want to be back in the Final Four and win a national championship. I think that’s the goal.
“How quickly can we get there? I don’t know. Maybe it’s this year. We’ll see. I think a lot of that will be determined on how our offseason goes and whatnot. But we’re striving to be the best we can possibly be, and if this team can be the best that they can possibly be, that’s going to be really, really good.”
Harper understands firsthand what the expectations are at Tennessee because she lived it as a player. She was the Lady Vols’ point guard from 1995-99 and helped lead Tennessee to three-straight national titles in 1996, 1997, and 1998. Harper was a pivotal part of those teams both as a floor general on offense and as a hard-nosed defender.
Tennessee’s new head coach knows what’s expected of the Lady Vols. But how soon can Tennessee get back to achieving those goals?
The roster Harper inherits is loaded with talent, at least from a high school ratings perspective. There are five players who were McDonald’s All-Americans in high school who are currently on the roster, and point guard Evina Westbrook — who is currently in the NCAA transfer portal — is another. Not only that, but all three of the Lady Vols’ 2019 signees — including the No. 1 guard in the 2019 class, Jordan Horston — have said they’re staying with UT after Harper’s hiring.
“We check a lot of boxes with our talent,” Harper said of her team. “Obviously there’s athleticism there, there’s length there, the ability to create and score and rebound. I think there’s a lot there that we’re excited about.”
But that talent hasn’t been able to play well as a team over the last few years, and it’s led to some very disappointing results on the court. Tennessee hasn’t won an SEC regular season or tournament title since 2015, and they’ve been eliminated in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament for three-straight years.
Harper was asked a similar question about the expectations of this year’s team when she appeared on the Paul Finebaum Show on the SEC Network. She reiterated that she’s not sure what this team’s current ceiling is, but she likes the talent and thinks that the potential is there for this team to be “really good” in her first year.
“Right now, our goal is to get this current basketball team to be the best basketball team they can be,” Harper stated. “I don’t know yet what that will look like. I don’t know if that’s a Final Four team or not. I don’t know yet, but I think they’re talented.
“So if we can maximize this group’s potential, I think we got a chance to be really good. So right now I think we all have to be on the same page, and our goal has to be the absolute best that we can be every day.”
Harper may not know what she has on her team just yet, but one thing is for certain: She’s not backing down from expectations.