Harper proud to be part of Summitt legacy
By Sparta Live | February 26, 2009 12:00 am
On February 5th, the state of Tennessee’s most famous basketball coach reached the coaching summit, pun intended.
Just in case the state of the economy has been a distraction from sports biggest headlines, the Tennessee Lady Volunteers’ win over Georgia on that Thursday night gave legendary coach, Pat Summitt, her 1,000th career victory. No other Division I basketball coach, men’s or women’s, has ever won that many games. Quite possibly, that record may not ever fall especially the fact that all the victories came at one university.
In addition to the 1,000 victories, Summitt has also won eight national championships. The second most of all coaches (only John Wooden has more) and the most of any women’s coach. Her teams have appeared in 18 Final Fours. In fact, every single player who has played four years for Summitt has played in at least one Final Four. In her 35 years of coaching, she has won 84 percent of her games. Since the women’s NCAA tournament was instituted, the Lady Vols have played in all 27 Sweet Sixteens.
Even adjectives like amazing and unparalleled just don’t seem to do justice to what Pat Summitt has accomplished.
During the post game celebration and presentation of numerous memorabilia commemorating the historic event, Summitt has been quoted numerous times giving credit for the milestone to all the players and assistant coaches who have been a part of her program through the years.
That statement aligns Sparta and White County with the one of the greatest coaching landmarks of all time.
Take a trip back in time. It was the fall of 1994. There was a volleyball game being played in the White County High School gymnasium, but a buzz was stirring throughout the gym. Most in attendance at the volleyball game were walking near the door or outside the gym trying to see the visitor who was headed to Sparta.
It wasn’t long before the buzz got louder. Pat Summitt, the coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols, had just driven up in front of the school. She was already a legend in women’s basketball and this was more than a decade before the landmark victory. Summitt was in town for an in-home visit with Kellie Jolly. She was meeting Kellie at the high school and then headed for the Jolly home in Gillen Subdivision. The visit was just a formality because Jolly had already committed to be a Lady Vol and the rest, as they say, is history.
Jolly, who would later become Kellie Harper, was a point guard for Tennessee for four years. She was part of three national championships and victories 563-694 on the list of 1,000. During Harper’s four years at Tennessee, the Lady Vols recorded a 131-17 record. Harper is currently the head coach at Western Carolina University. Harper took time to talk about Summitt and give an insider’s look at the most prolific coach of all-time. The respect that Harper has for her former coach and mentor is apparent as she talks about what it was like being a part of the program ran by the legend.
Harper’s Western Carolina team has played Tennessee two times in her five seasons at the helm of the Catamounts. One of those games was in the NCAA tournament.
Harper laughed, “I’m so loyal to Pat that, in addition to the games we won when I was a player, I have given her two more wins as a coach.”
No former player turned coach, in fact, has ever defeated Summitt.
“She is what she is,” Harper explained. “When you see Pat on television, that’s the way she really is. Yes, she is extremely demanding. She’s a perfectionist. She’s really tough in practice, but the part you don’t see is she’s very funny and very genuine. She not only wants to be the best basketball coach, she also wants to be the best mother, best friend, best boss, best cook. She’s a superstar and we were privileged to get to work with her on a daily basis.”
Harper and Summitt’s similarities go way beyond the basketball court and the mutual respect they share for one another comes from those similarities.
“Pat and I grew up very similarly,” said Harper. “Her dad pushed her to succeed. She came from a very close-knit family. Her parents expected her to be a good person and always do things the right way. She had to work on her family farm. In those regards, we’re very, very similar. We both are very proud of where we come from and will never forget that.”
The comparisons between Summitt and Harper go beyond their upbringing. People who have watched Harper’s teams and her coaching style see a lot of Summitt in Harper, who talked about the impact her college coach had on her after her time as a Lady Vol.
“When I became a head coach, the thing I most wanted to resemble Tennessee was Pat runs a classy program first and foremost,” noted Harper. “When I say classy, I mean from the way the pictures are hung on the wall to the way your players dress to the way they act in a restaurant to how they treat guests on campus. Everything we do, I want it to be with the utmost of class. Secondly, I know I’m not Pat Summitt as a coach. I can’t be her. I wish I could be, but I do try to emulate her poise on the sidelines. That was one of my favorite things as a player. No matter what the situation, no matter how much time was on the clock, she always made our team settle down just with her tone and her confidence. She knew how to pass that along with her body language and what she said. That’s something I’ve tried to emulate.”
Harper has also followed in the footsteps of Summitt in her recruitment of student athletes. Every single player who has every played four years for Summitt has went on to receive their degree. A 100 percent graduation rate is unheard of especially for a team who excels on the court. But Summitt makes sure that happens at Tennessee. Coincidentally, Harper’s WCU teams have one of the top GPA’s in the country.
Harper talked about what Summitt expects of her athletes.
“She tries to do things the right way. You’re not going to be an athlete without the student. You’re going to act right. She won’t put up with anything less. She doesn’t settle when she recruits. She wants the whole package. She wants good people, good players, good students and, at the same time, she wants her players to develop in all those aspects while they are in her program. When something is good, you try to imitate that. We try to recruit good players, good students and good character because I have seen you can be successful doing it the right way. We try to teach them more than basketball while they are a part of our program. Pat always told us we were in a fish bowl. She said people know who you are and are always watching. You never know when you’ll make an impact on somebody.”
Harper also gave insight on what it’s like going through a typical Pat Summitt practice.
“I’m not sure you can describe her practices as typical. Even in my four years, things were different from year to year. She never walked into a practice slow. It was always full speed walking – a very ‘let’s get in here and get this done’ walk. One thing was always the same. It was intense. Every drill was intense. You were going to do it the right way. There were no if’s and’s or but’s about that. What she said was the gospel truth. We always went full speed in every single drill we did.”
Harper did reveal a little secret, “One thing we did learn to note was how she was dressed when she walked into practice, especially my sophomore year when we lost 10 games. If she came in wearing black, we were in for a long practice. If she came in wearing black and her glasses, we were in for a very long practice. But if she came in with orange or white on, we were golden.”
Even though Summitt has won more games than any other coach and more championships than all but one other coach, Harper explains that she is a student of the game.
“I’ve told Pat this before. One of the most amazing things is that year after year, she is always at or near the top. Some coaches will be successful for a while, then fall off and maybe rise again. She’s always there. No matter what goes on in the regular season, she seems to always be contending for a championship. That is a testament to her adapting. She has won over the years with all different types of teams and players. She adapts to the different style of kids she coaches and to the way basketball has changed. Her offensive and defensive schemes, even though she has her own philosophy, will change when she needs to. She is always trying to learn something new from anybody at any level. She’s trying to soak it in and figure out what will be best for her team. I think she’s the perfect amount of stubborn. She’s stubborn enough to get it done her way, but she understands when she needs to make that change.”
Harper further added, “I will never forget being on the sidelines and her turning to her assistants and saying ‘help me. What do we need to do?’ She utilizes her staff and their strengths. That taught me an invaluable lesson. If you are going to have good people around you, use them. When you talk to her, she’s like a sponge. She processes everything you say and you just know she’s filing it away and, at some point, she might want to use it one day in her program. It’s amazing. That is one thing that makes her successful – her drive to get better. She is not ashamed or too good to ask for help or learn from others.”
No matter how stellar the athlete, Summitt is always teaching and striving to make those players better. Some of the best to ever play the game have worn the orange and white. Even in the 1998 season when the Lady Vols finished 39-0 and were regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, teams of all time, Summitt wanted to make them better.
“She’s always teaching,” said Harper. “Believe me, you had to time those mistakes. You didn’t want to turnover the ball over right before a timeout or before the end of the half. You didn’t get away with anything less than perfect. Nobody’s perfect so she’s always looking for a way to make you better as a player. She could do that in a multitude of ways. She could stare a hole right through you and get her point across without ever saying a word. She could also jump you pretty good, too. She didn’t play favorites either. If you messed up, you didn’t escape the stare. She expected you to do what you could do. Pat did not expect me to do what Chamique (Holdsclaw) could do. Thank goodness! She knew each player’s limitations. She also taught me that each person had different buttons you had to push. She would have us take personality tests to better know us as individuals and what made us tick. She shared those with me one year so I could be a better captain and team leader.”
Summitt is always willing to give back to the game and do her part to make it better. She has interacted with Harper’s team in various ways.
Harper explained, “We’ve played them twice and aside from the actual game and getting beaten pretty soundly, it’s been pretty special. First of all, for my players to get to see and experience a small part of what I had an opportunity to experience is something they will never forget. She’s the greatest coach that has ever lived and they can someday tell their kids they played against her. She’s also been gracious enough to meet and speak with our players. Two of my players got to do a podcast with her. She called in and let them interview her. They were star struck. This was a legend that has broken every record there is to break and she gave those players at another school a chance to sit down and have a conversation with her. That’s how generous she is. She loves the game and will promote it any chance she gets. Once when we were traveling through Knoxville, we stopped at the University of Tennessee and I ran into the offices while the kids were on the bus. I didn’t even expect her to be there, but she was. She asked if the girls were on the bus and if she could go speak to them. She gave them basically a pregame speech. Half our kids may not have heard anything she said. They couldn’t get over the fact she was actually on the bus with them. One kid, who had been asleep on the trip, woke up and thought she was dreaming. Again, you don’t find that kind of generosity and sincerity very often. Obviously, she did it because I’m a former player, but she also did it for the game of basketball.”
One of the most amazing things about the 1,000 victories is that Summitt and the Lady Vols will back down from no one. Year in and year out, the UT schedule is one of the toughest in the nation. Of the 1,000 wins she has recorded, over 400 have come over ranked teams. There is no padding that record.
Harper added, “It’s amazing that every year, her strength of schedule is the top in the country and she continues to win. At one point, my players calculated how long it’s going to take for me to catch her. Let’s just say, I need to win a lot more games each year and be prepared to coach when I’m 90 because it would take a long time for me to catch her. I don’t think it can be done.”
When the 1,000th victory went on Summitt’s worksheet, Harper received numerous congratulatory emails, text messages and phone calls for her part in the record.
Harper said, “One you’re a Lady Vol, you’re always a Lady Vol. You’ll always be associated with Pat Summitt. It makes you proud. She makes her former players feel like they’re still a significant part of what she’s doing today. She’s 100 percent genuine. She loves her players and we know it. There’s a lot of pride there because of that.”
In amidst two busy basketball seasons and coaches going in different directions across the country, Harper called and left a message congratulating her former coach on the historic accomplishment.
“We talked about it very briefly and then she went on to ask me about my season and talk about it. She’s very humble. She definitely understands what she’s accomplished, but she’s already looking for 1,020. She’s always pushing forward. I’m not sure anyone can truly grasp what 1,000 means. It’s such an overwhelming number. It’s an amazing feat. We’re not just talking about women’s basketball. We’re talking about college basketball in general. I’m just proud to have had the privilege to be a part of the legacy and to be associated with Pat Summitt.”