Advertise with usContact UsRTI Team

Column: This is a Make-or-Break Hire for the Lady Vols

Photo By Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics

The Lady Vol basketball program is at a very, very important crossroads right now.

Women’s basketball is growing at a rapid pace. The popularity of the sport is arguably at an all-time high, and while part of that is due to the star power of players like Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese, this isn’t just a flash in the pan; women’s basketball is here to stay, and it’s going to continue to demand more attention (which it deserves).

Tennessee literally cannot afford to miss out on this opportunity to capitalize on this swell of popularity.

The Lady Vols should be one of the premier programs in women’s basketball. They were for decades, but as the game grew, Tennessee started to dwindle. Part of that can be attributed to just the growth of the women’s game in general and the parity that ensued. That’s the good side of the coin.

The bad side is that you can’t just blame the growth of the game on the Lady Vols slipping from the spotlight. UT is responsible for some of that, too.

Look, it’s extremely difficult to replace a legendary head coach. Alabama is going through that right now in football with Nick Saban’s retirement. But it’s even more difficult when the legend in question is basically the First Mother of collegiate women’s basketball and was the end-all and be-all of your women’s basketball program for almost four decades. That’s more than replacing a legend; that’s replacing a folk hero.

And that’s an impossible task.

Holly Warlick was able to keep things steady at first, going to three Elite Eights in her first four years as head coach while also winning the SEC regular season or tournament title in her first three years. But then things began to crumble, even in her fourth year despite that Elite Eight run, and it became apparent she would not be the one to help steer the program for the foreseeable future in the post-Pat Summitt world for UT after she failed to get beyond the first weekend of the tournament for three-straight seasons and led the Lady Vols to their first-ever losing season in SEC play in her final year.

That’s where Kellie Harper stepped in. Now, five years later, and she has been let go as as head coach as Tennessee Athletics Director Danny White made the decision to move on from the former Lady Vol great in search of the third head coach since Summitt stepped away due to her unfortunate battle with Dementia.

I didn’t want Kellie Harper to be fired. I’ve never rooted for someone to succeed at Tennessee harder than I rooted for her. I remember attending her introductory press conference as head coach back when I was a full-time media member (for RTI, actually) and coming away thinking she had the perfect attitude and passion for this job. Only time would tell if she had everything else to help bring the Lady Vols back to national prominence.

She got close a few times, but unfortunately for her and her young family, she didn’t get close enough.

Harper and her various staffs deserve credit for helping dig the Lady Vols out of the hole they were in when she took over. She never had a losing record in SEC play unlike her predecessor, and she was able to consistently keep the Lady Vols in the top three of a deeper and more competitive SEC. Getting the program back to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2016 was a nice step in the right direction, as was getting to back-to-back Sweet Sixteens in 2022 and 2023.

Ultimately, though, this season was a step in the wrong direction. And the previous positive steps weren’t big enough to overlook this season’s slide.

The amount of talent the Lady Vols program has had in the last few years under Harper should’ve been good enough to get to at least the Elite Eight at least once. This year’s team especially, with electrifying forward Rickea Jackson as the star of the show and supported by players like Jewel Spear, Sara Puckett, and Tamari Key.

Instead, UT fell in the Second Round this season, albeit to a very good NC State team, and finished with a 20-13 overall record, Harper’s worst non-COVID-affected record as head coach at UT.

Yes, Harper deserves some grace for falling short in multiple seasons due to some of the truly awful injury luck her teams almost always seemed to be dealt. Whether it was Zaay Green, Ray Burrell, Jordan Horston, Keyen Green, Tamari Key, Destinee Wells or Rickea Jackson, it seemed like every year Harper had to deal with one of her best players suffering a season-ending injury or missing a significant chunk of time due to injury or ailment. And it wasn’t like it was a situation you could point to and blame the strength and conditioning program like you could with Tennessee football under Butch Jones; the majority of those injuries were just freak accidents (or in Tamari Key’s case, a health concern that obviously goes beyond anything basketball-related).

Even with that grace, though, I don’t think you can completely cast aside blame for Harper for the Lady Vols failing to meet expectations time and time again. At some point, she and her staff earn some of the responsibility for not getting the program back to national relevance to the level the Lady Vol brand deserves.

Part of that also has to do with roster construction.

Harper and her staffs have done a great job in the transfer portal in this new era of college basketball. But recruiting? Boy…recruiting has been a different story.

And I get it, the NIL money for the Lady Vol basketball program isn’t what it should be. I absolutely agree with those who say the Lady Vols are having trouble competing in the NIL space, and that shouldn’t be the case for a storied program like this.

Even still, NIL woes or not, the Lady Vol basketball program is similar to the Tennessee football program in that it can recruit itself to a certain extent. NIL has been far from the biggest problem on the recruiting trail for the Lady Vols, because Harper and her staff were struggling with recruiting even before NIL became legal.

There’s no justifiable reason why the Lady Vols should have zero high school signees on the roster from consecutive classes. Justine Pissott was the lone signee of the 2022 class, and she left for Vanderbilt after just one year at Tennessee. Then the Lady Vols failed to sign anyone in the 2023 cycle, and they’ve inked just one player in the 2024 class, albeit a pretty darn good player in Kaniya Boyd. But that’s just one high school recruit from the last three cycles who will be on the roster for the 2024-25 season.

More From RTI: Tennessee Women’s Basketball Moving On From Kellie Harper

Grabbing elite talent out of the transfer portal is great, but you can’t sustain a program long-term with mostly transfers and only a small handful of high school talent.

For example, as much as LSU has attacked the portal, they’ve also supplemented that strategy with elite high school talent. In 2022, it was Flau’jae Johnson and Sa’Myah Smith. In 2023, it was a duo of five-stars in Mikaylah Williams and Aalya Del Rosario along with high-end four-stars Angelica Velez and Janae Kent. And they did that all while grabbing players like Angel Reese, LaDazhia Williams, and Jasmine Carson out of the portal in 2022 and Aneesah Morrow and Hailey Van Lith in 2023. And don’t forget Alexis Morris in 2021, too.

But if you disagree with the decision to fire Kellie Harper, I don’t know that anything I have to say is going to change your mind. I’m not here to convince you I’m right or that you’re wrong. We can disagree on the decision but still want the same thing, which is for the Lady Vol basketball program to be considered one of the elite programs in women’s basketball again.

During this crescendo of popularity in the women’s game, Tennessee has become…almost an afterthought. Which should not be the case for one of the founding programs of the sport.

South Carolina, LSU, Iowa, Notre Dame, Texas, Stanford, Louisville, and, of course, UConn have all been the talk of women’s basketball the last half decade, with other programs thrown in there as well.

Tennessee has not.

Despite having some incredibly talented players with great personalities who deserved more of a spotlight, the program’s inability to break through and get over the proverbial hump has kept those players out of the national conversation as much as they deserved.

Now, with the women’s game growing to new heights in the modern age, it’s imperative that the next Tennessee women’s basketball coach is the right hire.

The next coach of the Lady Vols needs to be a good recruiter, a good developer, and a winner. Most of all, they need to be a good person who won’t compromise for the sake of winning, but they also need to actually win and do so at a higher level than what the program has seen in the last decade.

Since the start of the 2018-19 season, the Lady Vols are just 13-43 against teams ranked in the AP Top 25 per StatHead. In the previous 6-year period from 2012-18, the Lady Vols were 41-35 against ranked opponents, and even that was a decline from where the program had been in those premiere match-ups previously.

The last time the Lady Vols made it to the Elite Eight was 2016, almost a decade ago. It’s been even longer since their last Final Four run, which came in 2008 — the same year as their last national championship. The recent Sweet Sixteens have been nice, but given the historical standard of the Lady Vol program, that should be the absolute floor for the Lady Vols when it comes to NCAA Tournament expectations. Even with the expansion of the women’s game and the ever-growing parity, the Lady Vols should never go almost 10 years between Elite Eight appearances or over 15 years between Final Four trips. They also haven’t won the SEC regular season title since 2015 or the conference tournament title since 2014, which is the longest drought for either in the program’s history.

Getting the Lady Vols “back” doesn’t mean they have to go win consecutive national titles or make the Final Four every year. What it does mean is that Tennessee is back in the national conversation and is a legitimate title contender both in the SEC and nationally year-in and year-out. That means making more than one Final Four in 15 years and winning some sort of SEC title more than once a decade.

Hiring the right person to lead the Lady Vols has never been more important. I know that type of hyperbolic language gets used pretty much any time there’s a coaching search at a top-tier university, but given the state of women’s basketball currently and the state of the Lady Vol program the last decade, it truly feels like this is the most program-defining moment of the post-Summitt era.

As such, I don’t think the university should box themselves in on who they hire.

I’ll be honest, I would prefer a woman lead the Lady Vols. I also like the idea of a former Lady Vol player as the captain of the ship. But it seems like hiring a former player only adds an extra layer of pressure to an already difficult job, and none of Pat Summitt’s former players have thus far turned out to be elite-level coaches in their own right.

The best way to honor Pat’s legacy is to hire a high-level winner and a high-level person. That should be regardless of gender or ties to the university.

I don’t know who Danny White has on his list of candidates to take over the Lady Vol program. What I do know, however, is that he’s thus far made the correct choices in who he’s hired at Tennessee in the few opportunities he’s had to prove himself. So until he gives me a reason to question him, I’m going to believe he can make the right hire.

And if there’s ever been a bigger moment to bring in the right person to lead the Lady Vols, I haven’t seen it in my lifetime.

Similar Articles


5 Responses

  1. Wow! This is an awesome perspective of our cherished Lady Vols! I will miss seeing Kellie coach. May. The best future coach fill Pat’s shoes! I don’t think that can happen!

  2. Using injuries as an excuse is insulting to those of us that watch these girls play. UConn has had more injuries than any team in the country and basically have no bench, yet they are going to the Women’s Final Four. Why? Because they have a great coach. The Lady Vols are undisciplined and sorely lack fundamentals. That’s the result of bad coaching. Kellie didn’t recruit well and had to go, that’s it, and I don’t want another former Lady Vol to coach the team. I trust Danny White to get the job done that he’s paid to do and everyone needs to get behind him in that endeavor.

  3. I think Tenn should focas on 3 people right now:
    Jeff Walz @ Louisville
    Wes Moore @ NC State
    Kara Lawson @ Duke

  4. There should be no restrictions on money spent to get Lady Vols basketball to where it needs to be. So tired of going season after season knowing that our Lady Vols are not going to be in the conservation of playing for a championship.

  5. As one who lived in Knoxville for the great run in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, I hate seeing the Lady Vols struggle. I loved Pat and so enjoyed her teams.
    That being said- I don’t think they should hire a lady vol alumni to keep Pats legacy alive. Kara Lawson is not ready to be the coach here right now.

    If Danny White is smart, he’ll hire Scott Rueck from Oregon State. Outstanding coach who built a great culture and a winner at an impossible place. Literally no resources. He is the only coach on the list who can easily turn this ship around within a season or two.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Tweet Us