A Coach’s First Season: At Home with Kellie Harper

November 27, 2009
By Cherry Crayton

Update at 8:10 p.m. Saturday: NC State got off to a slow start, missing its first 12 shots to fall behind 13-0 early, and No. 16-ranked Vanderbilt made 28 of 35 free throws to top the Wolfpack 77-71 in the finals of the Vanderbilt Thanksgiving Tournament Saturday night in Nashville, Tenn.

The Commodores (6-0) extended their lead to as many as 20 points in the second half. The Pack used a full-court pressure defense to cut the lead to single digits, but they missed timely free throws, making just 14 of 24 in the game.

Senior guard Nikitta Gartrell led NC State in scoring with 16 points. The Pack also got double-doubles from senior forward Lucy Ellison (14 points and 12 rebounds) and sophomore forward Bonae Holston (13 points, 12 rebounds).

Here’s what Coach Kellie Harper told Patrick Kinas of the Wolfpack Sports radio network after the game:

We did have a slow start. Offensively, we looked a little panicked out there with out shots and had too many turnovers early. . . . [And] we left their shooters free for open shots. At the same time,  I tell you what, I want to win and I’ll never accept a loss, but those kids played their guts out tonight, and I’m proud of the effort. It challenged us physically and mentally, and we were able to see players step up and rise to the occasion. . . Obviously, we still have a long way to go, and it is a process when you have a new staff to learn and to grow as a team, and I wish we could do it quicker for our seniors. I don’t want to put them through this all season, but gosh, if we keep playing like this, we’ll get wins. If we can bottle this up and open it up in our next game and the game after and the game after that, we’re going to win.

On what she learned about her team from tonight’s game, Coach Harper said:

[They’re resilient], and I learned they have a little more fight than they may have shown in the past. Also, the kids can make changes on the fly. We made some adjustments out there, and they handled them. . . . They’ve shown [those things] to us now, and we”ll expect it out of them.

NC State (5-2) returns home Thursday to meet Wisconsin at 7 p.m. in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Also, be looking for an entry on this blog from Patrick Kinas in the coming days for his insights on the Thanksgiving tournament.

After the jump, we’ve got an extended interview with Coach Harper that focuses on her Tennessee roots and touches on her start at NC State. We also have exclusive photos of her in her new home.

Update at 7:30 p.m. Friday: Senior forward Lucy Ellison had a career-high 15 points and a career-high 15 rebounds as NC State had to grind out a 76-67 win over Northwestern State Friday night to advance to the finals of the Vanderbilt Thanksgiving Tournament in Nashville, Tenn. The Pack also got 16 points from freshman guard Marissa Kastanek, 13 points from senior guard Nikitta Gartrell, and 10 points and 9 rebounds from junior forward Tia Bell. The Wolfpack will play host Vanderbilt, ranked No. 16 in the ESPN/USA Today poll, at 5 p.m. Saturday. (Listen to the game on WKNC 88.1 FM and get updates at GoPack.com or via Twitter.)

Here is what Coach Harper said earlier in the week about the potential match-up with Vanderbilt, the first nationally-ranked team the Wolfpack will face this season:

They’re very, very well coached and extremely smart on the floor. They take advantage of every mistake you make. Going into the game our kids have got to understand the importance of limiting mistakes on both ends of the floor. So that will be a huge challenge for our team.

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In early November, as part of our ongoing series “A Coach’s First Season,” Wolfpack women’s basketball Coach Kellie Harper invited photographer Peyton Williams to her new home to take photos; we’ve posted some of those in the gallery above. Periodically throughout the season, NC State magazine will also sit down with Coach Harper for extended interviews that focus on her background, coaching philosophy and plans for the NC State program. Today, as her team meets Northwestern State at about 5 p.m. in the Vanderbilt Thanksgiving Tournament in Nashville, Tenn., we take a look back at her Tennessee roots and touch on her start at NC State. (Listen to the game on WKNC 88.1 FM and get updates at GoPack.com or via Twitter.)

A native of Cookeville, Tenn., Harper was a three-year starting point guard at the University of Tennessee, helping the Lady Vols to three straight national titles (in 1996, 1997 and 1998) and a 39-0 record her junior year. Her coach there, of course, was the legendary Pat Summitt, the all-time winningest coach in college basketball history.

After the jump, Coach Harper talks about some of her experiences at Tennessee and the documentary A Cinderella Season: The Lady Vols Fight Back, which follows the Lady Vols during Harper’s sophomore season when she missed the first 16 games while recovering from a torn ACL and when the team bounced back from 10 losses to claim the 1997 national title. And yes, the NC State players have seen the documentary. NC State junior forward Tia Bell explains:

[Redshirt sophomore] Emili [Tasler] and I watched it and used it for a project in class. We’re both getting minors in coaching, and we had to apply a coaching concept to the film. We actually presented on that on [Tuesday]. Everyone [on the team] watched clips [of A Cinderella Season] one time in the locker room at practice. Everybody laughed. We got to see [Coach Harper] play, for one, and we got to see her interact with her team. It was funny to watch her more than 10 years ago, and there is kind of a difference in her appearance now. . . .

It was very interesting to watch. I see a lot of similarities that [Coach Harper] had to Pat Summitt. Coach Summitt was very intense and intimidating, but she wasn’t as intimidating as I thought. She didn’t yell too much; she just wanted the best out of her players and that’s what Coach [Harper] really wants, too. . . .

I’m glad I watched it. It gives you a lot of hope.

Near the end of this entry, Coach Harper also answers questions that you, the readers, have submitted to us so far. If you have a question you’d like to ask her or any of the assistant coaches and players, leave a comment or e-mail them to us at alumniblog@gw.ncsu.edu. We will ask them your questions and pass along appropriate comments.

Interview with Coach Kellie Harper

The following edited transcript is based on three interviews with Coach Harper; one was conducted on Nov. 2 in Apex and two on Nov. 25 in the Norfolk, Va., area.

Coach Harper on her Tennessee roots

Describe your childhood.

Very family-oriented. My parents and my brothers have always been very involved in my life and each other’s lives. The majority of our life revolved around basketball, and my parents did not miss many games. They once drove 27 hours to watch me in play in an [AAU] tournament in Ogden, Utah. I flew with the team, and they drove. . . .

My dad is also a very hard-working person. Aside from my dad being an assistant principal at a high school, we also raised tobacco and that was a family job. I was out there working with the men, as was my mom. We’d spend hours and hours in the field. With Thanksgiving coming up, someone asked me my Thanksgiving recollections. We’d get up, go strip tobacco, listen to football on the radio, come in for lunch, have Thanksgiving lunch, go back out and finish stripping tobacco for the day. That was what our Thanksgiving Day was like. My parents taught all of us that you have to work to be successful. And we weren’t afraid to work —  whether that be in the tobacco field or on the basketball court.

What drew your parents to basketball?

My dad [Kenneth Jolly], when he was growing up – I was told that they put a basketball goal up in the barn. He was one of 13, and a lot of his siblings liked basketball. But he was the only who played basketball in college. For my mom [Peggy], I know my mom’s dad loved basketball. My mom was a tomboy growing up and just really enjoyed the game. Both of my parents had an opportunity to play college basketball [at Tennessee Tech], which is pretty unique. Did you ever get burned out by basketball? You know, I didn’t. My dad pushed me, but he understood when he needed to stop. He pushed me to make me better, and I wanted to be better. I think also growing up, my parents saw how a few parents of other kids my age may have pushed their children too hard and turned them against basketball. I think it’s a fine line. But there’s no doubt that if my dad didn’t push me to the best that I could be, I wouldn’t be here. I think another thing they installed in us was practice. If you wanted to do something well, you had to practice. If I’m about to play church-league softball, I’m going to go to the batting cage and practice. I just think the importance of practice in whatever you’re doing was a very important thing to learn.

What were your relationships like with your brothers growing up?

Brent is the older of the two and he’s only three years younger than me. He was always quite big for his age. Growing up there wasn’t a lot of difference between us. We would get in fights and arguments all the time. We tried to play one-on-one basketball, and we never finished a game. I’m almost positive we never finished a game because we’d always get in a fight. We’re both off-the-charts competitive. We did not want to lose at rook. He and I played blind-man rook, and when he and I both were feeling very competitive, he and I both would play together against the blind opponents.  Oh gosh, I also remember playing Jeopardy! on a Commodore 128, and we had all the questions memorized, and we would team up to get a perfect score.

Now, the youngest of the three of us, [Ross], he’s 11 years younger than me. When I went to college, he was 6. He and I were very, very close until I went to college. Unfortunately, I still kind of still see him as a 6-year-old, even though he’s now in college [at Tennessee Tech]. I still see him as my younger brother, and I don’t know if I’ll ever view him as an adult. I keep thinking he should still be in elementary school. We were always, always close. Brent and I argued and fought, and then once I got college, we matured and we were able to have a civilized relationship. Now, we’re extremely close. I do call him quite often to just vent about things going on with our team and he and Ross are huge, huge fans of our team. Ross, actually, was driving home from school and called my mom and had her put the phone by the computers so he could listen to our game. That’s a fan.

Will you get to spend time with your family during the team’s trip to Tennessee to play in the Vanderbilt Thanksgiving Tournament?

I’m going to try to see my family. My mom is going to make the games; I’m not sure if my dad can. I may have to make a special trip home. He’s battling Parkinson’s, and it’s a day-to-day status with him. Some days he’s OK, and some days he struggles. It’s tough to be so far away and not to be able to help my mom. She does so much for him. His brothers and sisters there at home have been wonderful. I would love for him to be able to see my team on Friday, but I don’t know if it’ll work out.

Coach Harper on playing at Tennessee

What are some of your favorite moments from your playing career at Tennessee?

Some of my favorite moments were the introductions and the moments our team had together before we took the court. We had our chants and our cheers. And the player introductions, we had the smoke and the spotlight. It was really cool. And the fans — the moments when you get off the bus at away games and there are 200 people to greet you, or you drive to the gym and there’s a sign that says the game is sold out and there are going to be 25,000 people in attendance. Those moments, aside from winning national championships, stick with you.

You won three national championships as a player. What does each one mean to you?

People ask me a lot which season is the most meaningful. You always remember your first championship. And the second season, we weren’t supposed to be win. We went through so much, we lost 10 games and came out a winner. But the third championship was the perfect season. It’s hard to choose. All of them were so different but yet no less meaningful.

That second title came your sophomore year at Tennessee (1996-1997 season) when you missed the first 16 games because of a torn ACL and the team lost 10 games that year. It’s all captured in A Cinderella Season. Have you watched the documentary since it was released?

Occasionally I’ll watch it again. I forget some of the things that went on. The girls had it on the other day, and I was watching it. We were watching just a few minutes, and the Final Four scenes came on. The crowd, the excitement. And I turned around to the kids, and I said, “You’ve got to do that. You’ve got to experience a Final Four. It’s that powerful.” There were so many things that went on during that year. It’s wonderful to have some of that documented. I remember the championship game, too, [in which Tennessee beat Old Dominion 68-59]. I think I had 11 assists to break the championship record for most assists in a game. I had a lot of turnovers, too, but we won’t mention those. I had really good teammates.

There’s a scene in A Cinderella Season where you’re talking to one of your teammates, Chamique Holdsclaw, and you tell her, “I love winning, but I hate losing more than I love winning.” When did you realize that was true?

I think during my time in college I realized that was how my brain worked. Part of that realization came from the fact that I can’t remember wins as much as I remember a loss. And my emotional level varies much more after a loss than it does after a win.

There’s another scene in which your team is in the locker room during halftime, and your team is behind in the game. Coach Summitt walks into the locker room, picks up a marker and then turns to address only you in front of the entire team and tells you that you need to grow up. What goes through your mind when you’re in a situation like that?

Well, first of all, you want to make sure you’re sitting straight up and looking [Coach Summitt] in the eyes, or it’s going to be 10 times worse. Also, I made sure I responded to her so that she knew that I heard her. And secondly, you’re challenged, and I’m the type of person who doesn’t like letting people down – the team down, the coaches down. That hurts. I don’t necessarily think her singling me out and yelling at me hurt as much as the realization that I just let the team down. She has an incredible way to refocus you. She definitely refocused me that afternoon. What they didn’t show you [in A Cinderella Season] was that after that loss, after the game, she made me go do the radio interview so I could explain to all the people back home in Tennessee what just happened. It was bad.

That 1996-1997 season you missed the first 16 games with a torn ACL. How were able to come back after only three months?

That was actually my second torn ACL. I had done the first one in high school. I had already made a quick recovery my senior year of high school; it was two months and three weeks, and I knew I could do it again. And Pat  gave me the confidence that I could get back out on the court, and I wanted to help our team. Knowing the personnel that we had that season, I knew that if I could get back out on the court, I could help the team. We were low in our numbers with point guards. As soon as I knew the result, my mentality turned to extreme focus on the rehab and on what I had to do to get back on the court. When I set a goal, I’m really able to focus in on what I have to do to make it happen.

And to be honest with you, as a coach, that’s probably not a strength of mine – goal-setting with the team and with our staff. I think just growing up, it was always important for me to be the best in whatever I did. I didn’t have to write that down on a piece of paper. In my mind, I needed to be the best. I thought that is what everyone strives to be.

What led you to develop that mentality?

I’ve thought back on that. A lot of people think that because I played at Tennessee, that’s where it came from. But, it was so long before that. I was pretty competitive as a kid, but I think early on I was just on good teams. My junior high teams won [championships]. My elementary school teams won [championships]. Well, one year we didn’t, but we usually won. I was on very, very good teams in high school. You get accustomed to winning, and it has a snowball effect. I can vividly remember not winning a T-ball game and balling because we did not win, when I was in elementary school. . . . I remember when I was a little kid that we lost a T-ball championship to the Green Rockets. I was furious. I’m still mad about that. . . . This is something that has been with me much longer than I can remember, so I can’t really grasp or try to figure out where it came from.

How do you think your experience with an ACL injury has shaped you as a coach?

I think the ACL [injury] influenced me as a player, first of all, because my teammates saw first-hand how hard I worked to get back out on the court. I gained a lot of respect after the knee injury. I think, as a person, it built character and allowed me to establish some resilience. I think it allows me to say that I’m a tough person, with proof to back it up.

As a coach, I think two things. One, it allows me to relate to players who are injured. But two, it may be a negative, but I want people that will work as hard as I did, and I expect that.

When did you know that you wanted to be a coach?

My sophomore year of high school, and I think that was a product of me sitting at games with my dad and talking strategy and just getting into the Xs and Ox. At that time I thought I wanted to coach high school. It wasn’t until during my sophomore year of college that I wanted to try that college-coaching thing. I remember talking to Pat about it that year: “Maybe I want to try the college coaching route.” I think I just really enjoyed the depth of the game at the college level and how much goes into it. . . . I also had a great experience at Tennessee, and that might have had something to do with it.

Coach Harper on coming to NC State

Why NC State?

I’ve had opportunities to leave [Western Carolina] before, but the fact of the matter is that I felt like we could go to a Final Four here. That’s a dream of mine: to a coach a team to a Final Four. I love this university, and I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t feel like I could do that here. I understand it’s not easy, and it’s not going to happen overnight, but I’m confident.

What do you see at NC State that gave you that confidence?

Tradition, and I really like the support we could get here. It’s a basketball league. I know it’s tough, but that will give you an advantage. If you want to coach basketball or play basketball, I think this is the best place to be in the country.

How long do you think it will take before your teams contend for championships? [Editor’s note: This question was also similar to a reader-submitted question.]

I think we could be competing for championships in three or four years. Does that mean we won’t win before then? No.

The players talk about your confidence and you have said you’re confident in the ability to win here. Are there areas in which you lack confidence?

If I’m speaking as a coach who has assistant coaches, I have confidence in every area. I really do. I know things I’m not good at. For instance, I typically will not keep the kids in as good as condition as they need to be when practice starts. They’re in great shape because of preseason conditioning. When practice starts, I will do so much teaching in practice that I’ll forget to get them up and down to keep their conditioning up. So I tell my assistants to make sure that they feel comfortable with the level of conditioning that they have. I know I’m not good in that area so I ask them to help.

The players also talk a lot about your energy level. How do you maintain that?

I am absolutely exhausted when I go to bed. When I hit the pillow, I am out. I think every day I have to be on, and I give it everything I’ve got every single day. There will be times that I just get completely exhausted, and I have to be able to find time to rest. I know one of the things that this team needs from me is my enthusiasm and my energy every day. So that may mean that I have to find a day to sleep in or I have closed my door at the office and laid down on the couch because I’d rather do that and have the energy for practice. I remember one day I was so tired. Well first of all, I don’t drink caffeine very often. Maybe once a month at most. And one day before practice, I drank two cokes back to back because I was so tired, and I knew I had to bring energy to practice. It’s definitely important, and I think they feed off of that and need it.

Coach Harper on this year’s team

What are the team goals for the season?

We have game goals right now. I don’t have them all memorized, but one of those goals is to hold our opponents to 10 or less on the offensive boards. That’s a pretty lofty goal, which we did not complete tonight. Another goal is to have more assists than turnovers, which is a little tough for us right now. What we try to do is lead the kids in a direction but allow them to set the goals and to set the standards. They came up with some ones. Realistically, it’s game goals right now. I think for them it would be hard to put a number on wins and losses. Their last goal, however, is to win.

The team is now five games into the season with a 4-1 record. Where are the players at in their progress and where would you like them to be?

We’re not where we need to be offensively. That’s my biggest area of concern. Our execution offensively and understanding what we want, we’re not where we need to be. And that’s something we’re going to continue to focus in on. We do some good things defensively. We’re still learning some things there, but we’re farther ahead in that. Our defense is a little better. With the offense, you don’t learn a system overnight. It’s got to be habits. Right now their habits are instinctual one-on-one play. And their habits have to eventually be moving and working together as five people. I think these kids are into staring at the person with the ball instead of working to get open. It’s very technical, but we do a lot of watching on the offensive end. Once we realize that moving is going to help everyone, we’ll be better off. It’s something we break down in practice, and they do a good job, but as soon as we go to a five-on-five scrimmage, it goes out the door. It’s just not a habit yet.

What has to happen for you to consider this season to be successful?

Hmm. . . . I don’t know. I know I’ve talked about improving. I really want to see this team improve. I like to say to get back to the NCAA Tournament. I think that would be a successful season, but I don’t know if that would be the only thing to define a successful season for our program this year. I think right now we’re moving in a positive direction though.

You’ve talked before about how you measure your team’s success this year by improving each game. How will you measure your success as a coach?

I measure my progress and my success two ways. One, with my team. And two, with our recruiting. It’s important that I see progress with the team. And sometimes that progress will not come in wins and losses. And that’s when it’s a little tougher to gauge me and how I’ve done. I think it’s really important that our staff keeps a handle on us and what areas we have improved in and in what areas we need to improve in. Occasionally, I will be get upset with how I taught something. “I did not teach that well, so next time I teach that I’m going to do a better job.” Or, “Make sure you don’t repeat your teaching methods with something else.” And typically, if I didn’t teach something well, it’s because I went too quickly.

Coach Harper’s Answers to Reader-Submitted Questions

In what ways do you think you are like Coach Summitt and in what ways are you different?

We’re both from Tennessee. (She laughs.) We sound alike sometimes when we talk. It’s hard for me to say what the similarities are. The woman has won a thousand games. I think it’s harder for me to see similarities, because sometimes when I look at her, I’m still her player. I think we coach differently. I’m very intense and very driven, which is similar to her, but in a very different way. She has such a commanding presence when she walks into a room and she can stare you down and motivate you in two seconds. I don’t think I have those qualities as a coach. I think my motivation for our players is a little different. I don’t know about this team, in the past, my players have been very motivated to please their coaches. I think I try to work with our players and challenge them one-on-one. I think we’re still learning about each individual [on the current NC State team]. You have to have all kinds of personality to make a team. You’ve got to be able to blend those personalities. I think this team has great chemistry, and they really enjoy being with each other off the court. They want to win, and they want to do what you want them to do. I can see their pride when I’m complimenting them, and they feel very comfortable with our staff. They’re a fun group to coach. I enjoy watching them improve, and already we’ve made great strides just four games into the season.

Does Coach Summitt ever give you advice on how to overcome problems? If so, what is an example?

I have spoken with Pat in the past about certain situations, one being team chemistry and bounced off some ideas. She gave me a few ideas about how to promote team chemistry. Each year you have different issues that come. Team chemistry is not an issue for this team.

Which one will get the most emphasis from a Coach Harper team: offense or defense?

I don’t know if I emphasize one over the other. I’m probably a 50-50 coach. Some practices will be heavy toward defense; some practices will be heavy toward offense. Right now our team is a little ahead on defense. So our practices are a little more geared toward our offenses.

How many players would you like to ideally rotate into the lineup during a game?

I think I can easily play 10 players. I have played up to 11 or 12 in a rotation in the past. But in my mind, in the perfect situation, I don’t have anyone playing over 25 minutes in a game. We’re not to that point yet.

Would you prefer to keep the score low, or maintain a fast-paced game with high scoring?

I do not enjoy a low-scoring game.

Have a question you’d like to ask? Submit it to us by leaving a comment or e-mailing it. We will ask it.

Also check out our other interviews with Coach Harper, junior guard Amber White, senior forward Lucy Ellison, senior guard Nikitta Gartrell, junior forward Tia Bell and freshman guard Marissa Kastanek.

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2 Responses to “A Coach’s First Season: At Home with Kellie Harper”

  1. ruth says:

    i was ecstatic when nc state named you as coach. i loved coach yow but felt that the team had underachieved for the past several years. how will you keep the family atmosphere fostered by coach yow, yet make the mindset more intense to win championships (conference and national). will you draw a lot from your tennessee experience and how pat summit runs her program to instill that attitude at state?

  2. Chris Richter says:

    Thanks for your comment, Ruth. We do ask Coach Harper reader-submitted questions, so check back often.

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