Kellie Jolly Harper, Western Carolina University women’s basketball head coach, is preparing to take the Lady Catamounts to the NCAA tournament for the second time in five years. The team won the Southern Conference tournament title game on Monday, March 9, in a triple-overtime thriller, earning an automatic bid to the national event.
Harper’s coaching accolades include being named the 2007 Southern Conference Coach of the Year both by her peers and the SoCon Sports Media Association, and her players have excelled not only on the court but also in the classroom, earning places on the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association academic honor roll.
Before coming to WCU, Harper served as an assistant coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and at Auburn. As a basketball player, Harper was a three-year starting point guard for the University of Tennessee and helped guide UT to an unprecedented three consecutive national championships in 1996, 1997 and 1998.
Harper holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and is married to Jon Harper, who works with her as assistant coach of the WCU women’s basketball team. His primary responsibilities include assisting with recruiting, administrative planning and coaching the Lady Catamount guards. He worked with all-conference WCU players Chevon Keith, Monique Dawson, Ashley Pellom and Lauren Powell. He holds a bachelor’s degree in health promotion/sports management from Auburn University.
The Reporter: How old were you when you started playing basketball? What sparked your interest in the sport?
Harper: The day my parents brought me home from the hospital they put a basketball in my hands and took a picture. Both of my parents played college ball, and my dad coached high school. I don’t remember not playing basketball.
The Reporter: When and how did you know you wanted to coach?
Harper: It was my sophomore year of high school. I wanted to coach, first of all, because I’m very competitive and coaching is a great way to allow you to be competitive in your job. Secondly, I love basketball. It’s given me so much, and coaching was a way to stay involved with the sport. Third, I enjoy teaching the game.
The Reporter: You are known for your drive to succeed, whether it is coaching basketball or even just playing intramurals. We have some WCU flag football pictures that really capture your determination. Where does that come from?
Harper: Early on, growing up, I was on winning teams, and I’ve always expected to win. I don’t know if it came from my family or where I grew up, in Sparta, Tenn.
The Reporter: Yet, you always look so calm and collected on the court, even in the most intense situations. What’s your secret? Have you ever had a technical foul?
Harper: I’ve only had one technical. It was during my second year at WCU, and I was taking up for one of our players. I can get pretty fired up when I need to, and I know our players would tell you that is definitely the truth. But, the last thing I need to do is be animated or anxious when our players need me to be calm and confident that what we plan to do is going to work.
The Reporter: Your husband, Jon Harper, is an assistant coach at WCU. How did you meet?
Harper: Jon and I met at basketball camp at Tennessee while he was a manager at Auburn for the women’s team. He came up to work at the camp, and it didn’t take long for us to fall for each other. It was pretty much a fairy tale story.
The Reporter: What’s it like to be married and work together? Do you talk about basketball at home?
Harper: Yes, you know a lot of people think you can’t take it home with you, but for us it’s not possible not to. We don’t have kids, and so the girls on the team are like our family. When we go home, that’s what we talk about. We have different coaching strengths, which is wonderful, and we both have a demeanor that allows us to work together. We are laid-back off the court, and yet have an extremely competitive drive when we know what we’re working for.
The Reporter: Your family came to the Southern Conference tournament championship game. How have they supported you in your career?
Harper: My mom and dad were at the game. They’ve driven all over the country to watch me play basketball. When they’re not at games, they listen on the radio or computer. My two younger brothers were also at the game. Ross is a manager for the (University of Tennessee) Chattanooga women’s basketball team, and my other brother, Brent, is an assistant coach for the Chattanooga men’s basketball team, which turned around and won the men’s Southern Conference title game the day after we won our championship. All of us are involved in the Southern Conference.
The Reporter: What were you thinking about during the last moments – the three overtimes – of the Southern Conference tournament title game against College of Charleston?
Harper: First of all, no one deserved to lose that game. Those two teams deserved to be there and no one deserved to lose. I was thinking I wanted our seniors to go to the NCAA tournament. I wanted them to have that opportunity. Lauren (Powell) and Kendra Eaton, they were in our first recruiting class at Western and I wanted it for them really bad. I wanted it for the team because they have done everything we have asked them to do.
The Reporter: With 1.8 seconds left on the clock in the first overtime, you coached a play that led WCU to draw a charge while trying to inbound the ball and earn two foul shots, which senior Lauren Powell landed successfully to tie the game and lead to a second overtime. What made you think of it?
Harper: That particular play is something I’ve known about all my life just growing up in a basketball family. We practice that play with our team, and one of my former players said when she saw our alignment right before the play that she knew exactly what we were about to do. You don’t get an opportunity to use those type of plays very often, but the situation was perfect for this particular play.
The Reporter: Do you have any traditions for good luck?
Harper: Oh, gosh. A winning streak will create all kinds of superstitions. I chewed bubble-flavored gum from the same pack, and the last piece I had I used on Monday night. I think I still have the box.
The Reporter: Fans can join the team at 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 16, at Club Illusions at A.K. Hinds University Center to hear where the Lady Catamounts will be sent in the NCAA tournament and when they will play. Then at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 17, fans can participate in a send-off caravan event on the concourse level of Ramsey Regional Activity Center. The celebration, which includes dinner, costs $15 for adults and $10 for children.
Harper: I hope everyone will come out and enjoy the festivities. Not many teams have the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament. It’s going to be an exciting time for our players and fans to see Western Carolina’s name on national television.
Interview by Teresa Killian