Just before Kellie Harper stepped on the practice floor of Thompson-Boling Arena ahead of the Lady Vols’ first official practice on Tuesday, she paused and soaked in the scene.
Harper’s back at her alma mater following an outstanding career as one of Pat Summitt’s best point guards. But she’s not back as a former player attending the team’s first practice; she’s back as the Lady Vols’ new head coach.
“I woke up excited, and I think our players did as well,” Harper told the media moments before practice earlier this week. “I want today to feel different than any other day. I think the first day of official practice should feel special.”
One of the best point guards to ever play in Thompson-Boling Arena is charged with quite the difficult task. Harper takes over a Lady Vols program that is at a fork in the road. To the left is a road that continues Tennessee down a path of not living up to the standard that Summitt laid over the course of so many years. On the right, a road back to glory, a road consisting of championship aspirations each and every single year.
In order for the Lady Vols to get back on the right path following a season of turmoil under Holly Warlick, Harper must re-establish the Lady Vol standard. That starts with getting across to the players what the coaches want the team to look like.
“We explain to them the effort is going to be there, how we act toward each other, our body language on the court, and how they should be enjoying things,” Harper explained. “Every little detail we have talked to them about.
“We talked to them about stopping in our offices. Everything that we’re doing right now is intentional. Everything we are doing is intentional to make sure that it’s looking the way we want it to look right now.”
Harper has incorporated drills that Pat Summitt used in an effort to re-emphasize the Lady Vol standard, but the first-year head coach has also been intentional about being competitive — an aspect that Warlick’s final team was missing.
She does so by making drills competitive with winners and losers just to emphasize that winning and competing in each drill is important. The coaching staff is closely monitoring whether the team is sprinting up and down the floor and whether they’re being very disciplined in, for instance, a box-out.
For Harper and company, being competitive and disciplined must happen every second spent on the floor.
“I think we have had enough practices (offseason workouts) now and enough time together that they understand the tone,” Harper said. “We are going to try to create some adversity for our team, we may up our drill.
“A goal, for instance, if a goal for a particular drill is 100, we up it to 125 and ask them to complete it. Just little things, but I think we have to find some adversity daily. Maybe it’s not big things. Maybe we cannot simulate a loss or being down 10 going into the fourth quarter, but we can find some way for them to be tested every day.”
As a result of the many offseason workouts, Harper feels as if the staff is more comfortable with the players. They’ve seen the players interact, they know which players have the biggest personalities, and they know who the quiet players are. Even with an understanding of the roster, though, the chemistry of the team continues to be a work in progress as practice begins.
“I have a curriculum that I want, but I usually do it for the month,” Harper said. “For this upcoming month and what I want to get in by our first exhibition date and how I go about doing that, I always put it down on paper, and it’s never 100 percent accurate, but it gives me something to work with, and it gives me a plan. And then we go out and see how we prepare, and if we’re progressing quickly and I can add more, or are we progressing slowly and I need to take some things off the table.”
Harper’s first group of Lady Vols are far from a finished product. The excitement will continue to build during the first couple days of practice, but even so, Harper understands the magnitude of the rebuild she has taken over as she puts her personal touch on the program.
“We are the Tennessee Lady Vols. We are a big deal, and to be heading that up is something I do not take lightly.”