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Why it matters that the Lady Vols hired Kellie Harper

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Tennessee’s hiring of Kellie Harper has inspired skepticism across the women’s basketball world. But this skepticism hints at the importance of her hiring.

Kellie Harper coached the Missouri State Lady Bears to the Sweet Sixteen this season. Now, Harper is returning to her alma mater to fill Tennessee’s coaching vacancy.
Courtesy of Missouri State Athletics via Twitter

Last week, the University of Tennessee named Kellie Harper the fifth head coach in the history of the Lady Volunteer program.

Following a failure to meet expectations, UT athletic director Phillip Fulmer dismissed Holly Warlick, the former Lady Vol who had served as head coach in the seven seasons since the retirement of Pat Summitt.

In hiring Harper, who most recently led an eleven-seeded Missouri State team to the Sweet Sixteen, Fulmer again seemed swayed by the winds of nostalgia.

Rather than selecting a coach with a more impressive résumé, such as Louisville’s Jeff Waltz, Tennessee turned to a former Lady Vol, as then-Kellie Jolly served as point guard for the back-to-back-to-back title-winning teams of 1996, 1997 and 1998. For the folks calling the shots in Knoxville, restoring Rocky Top as the summit of women’s college basketball appears to require entrusting the program to one who won with and learned from the legendary Summitt. Fulmer intimated as much, telling reporters:

“It became clear to me as the interview process started that we had our choice of coaches to talk to. As we went through the process ... it became clear that a Lady Vol would be really great.”

Is the appointment of a member of the Lady Vol family another misguided attempt to revive past glory?

As estimated by Rocky Top Talk:

“Fulmer (and by extension, Tennessee) are running a certain risk with Harper. While she is a former player and familiar with the expectations at Tennessee, she also does not have the resume that would jump off the page to a program of its caliber. It’s also a question of why Tennessee would go to the lower ranks to hire a coach, when its reputation and support label it as a top-5 destination in women’s college basketball.”

High Post Hoops similarly suggested:

“The initial reaction has been mixed, as her recent success cannot be ignored, but nor can her underwhelming stay at NC State. It’s fair to wonder if she wasn’t an alum if she would have been considered for the job, but that point is moot now.”

The Tennessean more bluntly described the Harper hire as a “risk,” while a Knoxville News Sentinel headline declared, “Kellie Harper is likeable, but Lady Vols should have made winning more of a priority.”

In short, a selection seemingly legitimated by nostalgic notions of exceptionalism has inspired somewhat warranted skepticism (see: Lakers, Los Angeles).

By expressing a starry-eyed excitement at her surreal opportunity, Harper did not exactly assuage such skepticism. In her introductory press, she shared:

“I thought that was Pat Summitt’s job forever. When this opportunity came available ... this is my dream job.”

However, can a hire that represents a reach for the better past also be a hire that reaches for a better future?

The significance of Summitt’s shadow is real ... and should be respected

Yes, the shadow of Pat Summitt looms over Rocky Top. As it should.

But, it is not simply about the nostalgic need to name a coach with a direct connection to Summitt. The memory of Summitt matters because of the character of the program she built — one by and for women.

Summitt’s Lady Vol program was an exemplar of women’s self-determination. As Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith put it in a 1998 profile, Summitt was “this unconscious revolutionary who’s tearing up the terrain of sexual stereotypes and seeding it with young women who have an altered vision of what a female can be.”

Summitt turned “Lady Vol,” a moniker originally intended to feminize, or even infantilize, women athletes, into an empowered identity. Her former players, most notably Candace Parker, embody this sense of empowerment.

But the type of opportunity enjoyed by Summitt has waned for other women

Yet, since not too long after Summitt, at age 22, took the reins on Rocky Top in 1974, the number of women in head coaching positions has declined. According to the NCAA, fifty-five percent of women’s college teams, across all sports, had a woman as head coach in 1981. In 2016, it was forty percent.

The declining number of women coaches is recognized as an unfortunate and important development. But, this long-developing reality is merely recognized, with such recognition seemingly understood as sufficient.

Reversing and rectifying this trend requires intentionality, as demonstrated and defended by Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw.

Recently, McGraw articulated the importance of putting women in positions of power:

Empowering women is needed to change ideas

The ingrained beliefs that McGraw describes explains the skepticism surrounding Tennessee’s selection of Harper. Her qualifications are questioned. Her expertise is not assumed.

More women in positions of power in athletics, as well as other spheres, is the antidote needed to cure the reflexive questioning of women’s authority. Women, as much as men, deserve to be hired for positions that may be over their heads. Women, as much as men, deserve the benefit of the doubt. Women deserve the opportunity to flail, fail and find their footing.

Putting women in power should not be about morality

However, women do not deserve to ascend to leadership positions because they are morally superior.

Yet, oftentimes, it is the assumed, inherent morality of women that earns them the opportunity to lead. The accusations surrounding former Georgia Tech head coach Machelle Joseph and currently on-leave North Carolina head coach Sylvia Hatchell suggest the absurdity of this assumption.

All the more, the supposed moral superiority of women is problematic because it perpetuates women’s secondary status. It justifies women’s power through traditionally feminine characteristics.

Putting women in power should be about normalizing women’s authority

Of course, one university hiring one woman coach, even if it is the university long-synonymous with women’s college basketball, will not erase these deeply entrenched norms.

Yet, decisions in the world of sports are about more than sports.

Yes, strategy and tactics are important. But choosing who is best equipped to provide such strategy and tactics is a decision that involves issues of power and privilege. In the space of sport, men, especially white men, are understood as inherently possessing these traits, always assumed to be up to the task. Women, particularly women of color and/or non-heterosexual women, do not enjoy any automatic authority. Women are seen with suspicion, not certainty.

The memory of Summitt models a better future ... beyond Rocky Top

Pat Summitt became a model of a powerful woman. But first, she had to be empowered.

And then, by combining her steel-gazed severity with genuine empathy, Summitt empowered young women of all backgrounds to achieve success both on and off the court. As recalled by Sport Illustrated’s Lindsay Schnell upon Summitt’s passing in 2016:

“Because of Summitt, girls like me knew a career in women’s basketball was possible — as a coach, a player, a media member. She inspired students and businesswomen alike. While other women in power talked about glass ceilings they’d hit and closed doors they’d encountered, Summitt added trophies to her shelf and cashed bigger paychecks than many men in her profession. She did most of it quietly, too. It didn’t feel like a crusade, but the results were undeniable.”

These ideas are why Tennessee is right to hire Kellie Harper.

By entrusting Harper, Tennessee honors the past, while also contributing to the possibility of a better future, one where the quiet crusade steered by Pat Summitt can become an undeniable reality.