A Coach’s First Season: Q&A With Assistant Coach Jon Harper

February 19, 2010
By admin
Jon Harper with Sharnise Beal (Photo by Peyton Williams for NC State magazine)

Jon Harper with Sharnise Beal (Photo by Peyton Williams for NC State magazine)

Saturday morning update: Four players on the NC State women’s basketball team scored in double figures and the Wolfpack made 8 of 14 3-pointers and 15 of 15 free throws to beat Boston College 73-62 at Reynolds Coliseum Friday night. Senior guard Nikitta Gartrell led the Pack with 20 points, with freshman guard Marissa Kastanek adding 17 points, redshirt junior guard Amber White 11 points, and senior forward Sharnise Beal 10 points. With the win, the Pack improve to 15-11 and 5-6 in the ACC; and with three games left in the regular season, they have guaranteed themselves a winning season and are eligible for a post-season tournament.

NC State opened the game by making 4 of 5 3-point attempts to pull out to a 12-2 lead and extended the lead to as many as 17 points in the second half. The closest Boston College came was within 7 points.

NC State travels to Chapel Hill Sunday for a 2 p.m. game against UNC, which is 14-7 and 5-6.

Go to GoPack.com for a game recap, and click here to watch post-game comments from first-year NC State head coach Kellie Harper and Nikitta Gartrell.

The NC State women’s basketball takes on Boston College tonight at 6:30 in Reynolds Coliseum. As part of our ongoing series “A Coach’s First Season,” we talked to NC State assistant coach Jon Harper yesterday before a 4 p.m. practice. In the Q&A with him after the jump, he talks about the season so far, his background, his role as an assistant coach and facing Boston College for the second time this season. The Eagles (14-11, 5-5 ACC) defeated the Wolfpack (14-11, 4-6) 83-66 on Jan. 10. The Q&A begins after the jump.

Also, NC State magazine talked to Debbie Mulligan Antonelli ’86 immediately after NC State’s win over Miami in the Hoops 4 Hope game Sunday. (Read that here.) A basketball analyst for ESPN and a three-year starter under Kay Yow, Antonelli co-hosts the weekly national podcast Shootaround with Beth & Debbie. To start off the latest podcast, she shares what happened as she was leaving Reynolds Sunday, and it’s a telling story about Coach Yow. Be sure to listen to the podcast yourself to get her account and her reaction. It’s the first thing she talks about and last for just a couple of minutes. If you want a summary of what she says, here you go:

As Debbie was leaving Reynolds Sunday night, she saw several former players in the women’s basketball office. She went into the office and asked them what they were doing. The former players were looking through files. Unbeknownst to them until that night, Kay Yow had kept a file on every player that ever played for her. The players only looked through the files kept on themselves. Inside her file, Debbie says, was every card, note, letter, and photo that she had sent Coach Yow, including photos of her children and high school transcripts. “Any correspondence I had sent her,” Debbie says. “Can you believe that?” Even included were 500 sentences that Yow had Debbie write as punishment for being late to a team work out. Debbie says she gathered some files to take to former players. “I think I need a wheelbarrow to carry out Summer Erbs’ file,” she says.

Q&A with NC State Assistant Coach Jon Harper

In the summer of 1997, Kellie Jolly Harper was sitting in a meeting on the University of Tennessee campus for the counselors of Pat Summitt’s basketball camp. In walked Jon Harper, then a student at Auburn University and a manager on the Tigers’ women’s basketball team. Kellie noticed him immediately. “Who is that?” she asked a friend sitting beside her. The friend didn’t know. “Well, that is the type of guy I could go for.” Soon, Kellie and Jon were on their first date; and a week after she graduated from Tennessee in May 1999, they married.

Today, they’re one of just seven couples in the country who coach together at the college level. Jon is a volunteer assistant coach with the Wolfpack women’s basketeball team. “He’s in a position that can’t be easy at times,” Kellie says.

After graduating from Auburn University in 1999, he taught physical education and was an assistant football coach at a high school and worked at a golf course. Then, they landed together in 2001 as assistant coaches at Chattanooga, which went to three NCAA tournaments during their three seasons there. In the Q&A below, he talks about how they got the positions, what makes their relationship work, what he enjoys about being part of the NC State program, and the season so far.

Jon Harper (Photo by Tim O'Brien for NC State Student Media)

Jon Harper (Photo by Tim O'Brien for NC State Student Media)

Jon Harper on the season so far

The last time NC State played Boston College, the Eagles won 83-66. How is the NC State team different at this point in the season?
The first game we were coming off the Maryland win and everybody was fired up and excited about it. We probably felt like we were invisible and obviously we weren’t. We didn’t come out and do the things we can control like we did in the Maryland game. We dug ourselves a pretty big hole early and couldn’t recover. It was a reality check for us. We’re probably not as good as we were against Maryland and probably not as bad as we were against Boston College. We’re in between. Hopefully this time the girls will understand that you have to show up every night. Defensively, we were pretty bad in that game against Boston College. I can’t remember how many points we gave up. But it felt like a lot. That’s going to be our strength. Whether or not you make your shots, you can play defense and rebound every night. And if you do that, you give yourself a chance.

Have the coaches talked with the players about that last game against Boston College?
We haven’t really yet. We had Tuesday off and practiced [Wednesday]. Two days before the game we don’t do a whole lot of focus on the upcoming opponent. We do some, but we do it more generally. We don’t specifically say we’re going to do this for Boston College or whoever the opponent is. [Thursday] will be more of a focus on Boston College because [Friday] is the game. But we haven’t really addressed it with the girls. I think they remember. I think they know. If you go into a game and you do what you can do, that’s one thing. But if you don’t, you’ve always got that doubt and you wonder if you had done it better, you might have won this game.

What have been the changes that the team has had to make to deal with the losses of post players Tia Bell and Inga Muciniece, who have been out the past couple of weeks with injuries?
With Tia and Inga out, we’ve lost two post players. We didn’t have an overwhelming number to begin with, so we’ve kind of had to move Brittany [Strachan] and Sharnise [Beal] to play those spots a little bit. That shortens our guard rotation. Now it kind of pinches on both ends. That’s something over time that they have adjusted a little better to. It’s not an ideal situation, but hopefully it’s something that they feel a little more comfortable playing dual positions. . . .  On one side, it gives you a match-up problem on the other end; the positive spin is that the other team has to match up with you, too, and their big kid has to match up against you’re maybe more athletic people playing the post. Hopefully those two [Strachan and Beal] are more comfortable now. Although with Boston College, they’re huge. We’re going to look really small.

What led to the decision to move Amber White from the point guard to the wing and freshman Marissa Kastanek to the point? And what’s your assessment of how things are going since the change was made three games ago?
We’re extremely competitive and we’re going to exhaust all options until the season is over. If something is not working, we’re going to try something else until it clicks. And it came up in conversation, “Amber is awesome at attacking the basket.” I don’t know, but maybe she felt like that wasn’t something she should be doing because she feels like she’s supposed to run the plays. I don’t know. We said let’s give it a shot and see what happens. It’s taken some pressure off of her. It put pressure on Marissa, but the other side is that Amber can help Marissa get the ball up the court. And we’ve tried to encourage them all. “Look, you all can do it.” I think, so far, Amber has done a pretty good job playing over there. There is a lot more that goes into being a point guard than the physical play. Mentally, it can be draining that you have to bring the ball up the court the whole time and the other team probably has pressure on you from baseline to baseline. There are a lot of things that go into it that you don’t always recognize. And if you move a person, it’s almost a complete stress reliever. In my mind, I think Amber is more comfortable now. As long as we feel like it’s working for both her and Marissa and it gives us the best chance as a team to be successful—we’re willing to try anything if something is not working.

What have been the areas where you have seen the most growth with this team?
That’s a tough question. We were just talking about it the other day that sometimes when you’re with a team every day and you go through practice, as coaches, you see the negative stuff. Even if you’re on a winning streak, you’re still going to say, ‘Hey, we need to do this right.’ It takes other people outside the program or another coach to say, ‘Hey, your kids are doing this really well.’ Of course, you’re like, ‘No, we’re not.’ But if you take a step back, you can say, ‘You know what? We are doing that well.’ We probably haven’t taken that step back like we should. I think our kids are learning to play all the time. And that’s extremely important to us. I think we hold them to a very high standard and I think they understand that we’re not going to give in. There are certain things that are not optional. If you’re going to play here, you’re going to give effort at all times. Sometimes, they think they’re giving the effort. But as a coach, you know there is more in there and that’s what we’re trying to convince them of. You’re playing hard, but you could play harder. If you’re not playing harder, then we need to get that out of you. I think that’s something they have gotten better at. There’s room for improvement. Technical stuff, the offense is something that they’ll be more comfortable with over time. We run a motion offense and rarely do you get somewhere the first year and the kids are comfortable with it, unless it’s something similar to what they were doing. It’s one of those things that over time, they get more comfortable with it. They do a pretty good job of running our set players. But now we’re trying to mix set plays in motion offense. . . .  Defensively, I think they’ve always been pretty good on defense. They just played a different style before. . . . Anytime you’re trained to do something a certain way for one year, two years, three years, and then someone comes in and tries to change it, it will take time to get used to it. I think they have the opportunity to be an awesome defensive team. But the way we play defense, if one person messes up, it’s bad. We stress five people all on the same page. I think helping them understand, ‘Look, if one person breaks down in this possession, they score. And the next time down the court, another person breaks down and they score, the next time a different person. You can go five straight possessions with four people doing it right and one person doing it wrong, and one person may be wrong only once, but you get scored on five times.’ That’s not acceptable. We’ve all got to be on the same page. It’s probably a high risk defense we play, but it has a high reward. It’s worked for us in the past and it’s worked for these kids at some points this year. It takes time for them to completely trust it. And we’re at the time of the year where we need them to trust it.

In addition to the changes in the offense and defense, there have been changes in strength and conditioning. Talk about those.
We’re going to lift year-round. A lot of basketball coaches struggle putting kids in the weight room during the season. They may do it as a token thing to say we work out, but it’s not important to them. I think over time coaches have adjusted to do it more and more. But it’s something from day one that it’s always been, at our previous jobs, it’s been important. Our kids, if you ask other coaches of other teams, they’ll tell you that our kids are physical. You get physical because you’re in the weight room and you get strong and confident about what you’re doing. And it’s not fun to play against a physical team, and we don’t want to be the team that’s fun to play against. That’s stuff you can control. We feel like the stronger we get, we can play the defense we want to play. Obviously, it helps you offensively, too. But defensive rebounding is the basis of what you can do night in and night out and getting into the weight room is the best way to improve that. You can work on boxing out, but the confidence you get from getting stronger because you’ve been in the weight room, you can’t quantify it. When it clicks for the kids, it takes off. Once they get over the fact, ‘I have to live weights,’ and start seeing the benefits, they’ll say, ‘This works. This girl has been pushing me around for three years, and now I can push her around.’ I think the strength coach probably loves that because it’s a different mentality than normal basketball coaches. Basketball coaches typically want to precision and finesse. They don’t often go and tell the strength coach and say, ‘Hey man, do you what you got to do get them stronger.’

How would you describe what this season has been like for you?
Back to the old saying that coaches are never happy. You think, If we hadn’t lost some of those close games, what would our record be now? We would be in a really, really good position. On the other hand, we’ve won some close games and beat some teams people didn’t think we would. So it always works both ways. Wake Forest is a perfect example. We probably didn’t have any business winning that game, but we did. So maybe that cancels out one of those close losses. We’re incredibly competitive and I’m the internal optimistic, so I believe you can win every game. It may be almost impossible to do, but I do believe you can win every game. We’re going to show up and we’re going to play, and if we do everything we’re supposed to do, we’re going to win. Now the other team tries to counteract that so you might not be able to do everything you’re supposed to do. But every game we go into, I’ve got it in my mind that if we do this, this and this, we’re going to beat this team. I don’t care who it is. So, 14-11 is tough to swallow when you look at it like you can win every game. . . .The other side is that with a new team, they’ve got to get used to us and we’ve got to get used to them. There is going to be a period of trying to figure each other out. There are ups and downs, and you can look back on our record and see there have been a couple of bad games in a row and a couple of good games in a row. That’s a normal thing. You don’t want that, but unfortunately you have it. Everybody else outside of the program says that’s what you expect in the first year. Yeah, in theory. But we’re going into it as why can’t we win every game? . . . .At this point in the year, I think the girls understand what we expect out of them. Hopefully, they’ll finish strong. We’re at a point where we have done some good things recently. If they can keep it up over the next few games, they’ve got a chance to end up having a pretty successful season, all things considered. We were predicted to finish ninth in the [ACC], which is where we are about now, but we’ve got a chance in these next few games to do better than that.

Has the coaching staff talked with the players about the potential to make a post-season tournament?
We haven’t really addressed it with the team. But I know for me, I’m sitting on the computer looking at the rest of our schedule and looking at other teams’ schedules, and I’ve got every scenario figured out. . . . I think it would be awesome if these girls got into the NCAA tournament. The seniors are the only ones who have been there. I don’t think they understand what a big deal that is. I wish they would because if they would, they would go the extra mile. That’s one of those things that we’ve been through as coaches, and it’s now about how can we convince them that’s important enough. In five years down the road, they’re going to look back and say, ‘Oh man, I wish we had done this to make the NCAA tournament.’ . . . . So as coaches, you’re trying to help them learn from your mistakes and not make their own. But it’s got to be them. At some point, it’s on the players—whether it’s the seniors or the freshmen—it’s on the leaders. It’s got to be on them to make the decision that it’s important and that they’ve got to do this. They are much more motivated when it comes from their peers than when it comes from us. They feel like we’re always on them and trying to correct them. But when your peers are saying do this or that, it’s a lot easier—maybe not easier to take—to go to do that if your peer is doing it. If you can get them to preach what you want them to preach and then do it, it makes your job easy.

Jon Harper on being an assistant coach

How would you describe your approach as an assistant coach?
Laid back until I decide to get excited. During the games, I’m going to voice my opinions. Kellie is a lot more soft-spoken. There are times when, if I feel like something needs to be said loudly, I will. It’s just not her nature. She’ll yell, but a lot of times she’ll yell and people can’t even hear her because she’s soft-spoken. People that know me know I’m competitive and excitable. But there will be times that if you watch me at practice, you’ll think I never say a word and I’m as quiet as a mouse. Then all of a sudden you can see me get excited by something. . . .  I try to control my excitement, but sometimes it just comes out.

What are other similarities and differences between you and Kellie?
I think it’s OK to say something to an official at times because I’ve seen it a million years. Every great coach will work the officials, so to speak, and all of a sudden they get a call. I’m not trying to get a call, but I’m trying to get the right call made whether for us or against us—as long as you’re consistent. She’s more of the perspective, “Oh, don’t make them mad.” It makes sense, and I totally understand. But I’ve seen Pat Summitt do it, I’ve seen Coach Mike Krzyzewski do it, I’ve seen Phil Jackson does it. I don’t want to say there’s an art to it, but I think officials understand and don’t take it personally. I think if you go overboard it can be bad, but I try to kid around with them. I might say, ‘My wife is killing me over here. Help me out.’ Things like that to get a smile out of them. . . .  Kellie is [also] a lot more Xs and Ox . She has a great mind and a photographic memory when it comes to plays and sets. . . . She can watch five minutes of a game and tell you every play that was just run. I can tell you the girl drove the baseline, but I can’t tell you what anybody else did. She can see everything at once.  She’s very good at that. It’s the best I have ever seen. . . .  It’s amazing to me because I can’t see like that. I think I’m good with personnel. She tells everybody time and score. I just enjoy that part. Even when I watch a football, I’ll say, “They should call a timeout. They should spike it now.” It’s something I’ve enjoyed in all sports. I think I do a decent job at that. And she trusts me. If I’ll say, “Kellie call timeout,” she’ll call it. If I say, “Kellie we need to do this,” she’ll do it. It gives her one less thing to worry about. There are times when I do or don’t say this or that when I wish I had or hadn’t. We’re probably, in the great scheme of things, we’re very similar. We have differences, but I think overall, in terms of our philosophy of basketball, we’re fairly simple in how we think. I just don’t have this photographic memory that she does. Now, I can remember some bizarre trivia, but I can’t remember plays like she does.

What do the other assistant coaches—Stephanie McCormick and Richard Barron—bring to the table?
Both have a lot of experience. . . . Both of their personalities fit really well with Kellie and me. They’re both really good people, and I think more than anything is that when people talk about our program and our staff and our players, we would want that the No. 1 thing to be that we’re good people. It starts with that, and those two are absolutely good people. Neither one of them takes themselves too seriously, which works well with us. There are times where we probably don’t take ourselves seriously enough. Maybe we kid too much, but it’s really not that bad of a job. In fact, it’s a great job. The fact that we get to do this for a living, wow. There’s no point in being miserable now. When you’re losing, it’s not fun, and our moods at times will reflect that. I think it’s probably tough on Richard [Barron] coming in with Stephanie [McCormick] and L’Tona [Lamonte, director of basketball operations]. We’ve all been together for five years. We knew him, but at the same time, Richard hadn’t been with us on a day-to-day basis. But he’s fit in right with us, and he’s had some good recruiting contacts. That’s just a bonus. We took him for his coaching experience and for the person that he was. If he wasn’t a good person, he would not be here. And Stephanie, we’ve been around each other for five years. We’re like brothers and sisters.  I think we have a good time.

What is like to work as an assistant coach under a head coach who is your wife?
I used to tell people we all work for our wives, but we just don’t get paid for it. But I don’t get paid anymore, so I can’t say that any more. No, I think my relationship with her could be different than her relationship with [assistant coach Stephanie “Mac” McCormick and Richard Barron], but I think they would also tell you that she wants our input. She wants us to feel a part of this. Ultimately, it all comes down on her. If we win, they are going to say that she’s the greatest thing ever. If we lose, they’re going to rip her in half. But she wants us all to feel comfortable and feel like we’re a part of it. That’s important. I know there are some assistant coaches out there who get no input. And that may work for some coaches, but she’s never been like that and she’s never wanted to be a dictator and say this is the way we’re going to do it and it’s my way or the highway. When the final decision is made, we ware going to support her whether we agree or don’t agree. There are some things I can probably get away with saying that Coach Mac and Coach Barron can’t, but I’ll also get the elbow that the two won’t get.

Because of state and university nepotism policies, you’re a volunteer assistant coach. What makes it worth it for you to do this job without pay?
There are a ton of people who would kill to be in my position. And I love it. To get a group of girls to do something that they don’t think they can do and see the end results and to be successful. Would I like to get to paid? Yes, but it is what it is. Fortunately, we’re able to survive without me getting paid.

What makes it work for you and Kellie? How are you two able to work together in this profession and maintain a healthy marriage?
We both have a lot of respect for each other. I certainly respect her background and her knowledge for the game. And I think she does mine, too. I don’t have the accolades she had as a player. But I think she knows I’ve been around it enough that I have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about. We respect each other as people. We’re both pretty laid back and like to have a good time. We’re not too serious. The basketball part is serious, and we’re extremely competitive. People think that’s crazy, but that’s part of our success. It’s not that we’re going to win at all costs. We’re going to win with good people and with the right way. We were both raised in the right way, in my opinion. We both had great families and parents that taught us right and wrong. I feel confident that my mom and dad taught me right and wrong, and I feel confident that her mom and dad taught her right and wrong. That’s what we want to be around and we want to foster that environment. We have our differences. There are times she doesn’t agree with me and times I don’t agree with her, but when it’s all said and done, we’re going to go with her decision. She’s the head coach and I understand that. We’ve never gotten into a heated argument about basketball that wasn’t over in five minutes. There is more than one way to skin a cat just like there are different ways to teach our girls defense. That doesn’t mean the other way is wrong. If we disagree on something basketball wise, it doesn’t mean she’s right and I’m wrong and vice versa.  We just agree to move on.

Jon Harper on his background

How did you get introduced to basketball?
The first time I played on a team I was in the fourth grade. But in the third grade I was in the Elks Club free-throw shooting contest. I won it for our school and then for our county and went to district. We had a goal in the driveway, and I had an older brother — he’s seven years older — and his friends would come over, and I’d try to play with them. I was an 8- or 9-year-old kid and didn’t do real well with 15 and 16 years old. But over time, I continued to play with them and I got better. So then the next year, my parents put me on a church league team. And this is ironic. Two mothers of my friends were the coaches. So my first coaches were female. My brother was an assistant. From them on, I always played. I played every sport growing up—football, basketball, baseball, soccer, golf. Whatever season it was, I was going to play. And then I started going to summer camps. . . . But I never played year-round or AAU ball, because I was always doing another sport, even through high school. I kept growing and people were like, “You’re tall. Play basketball.’ If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked if I play basketball, I would be loaded right now.

How did you come to work as a manager for the Auburn women’s basketball team?
It was the second year at school, and I lived next to two girls on the basketball team. One of those players was Samantha Williams, an assistant coach at Duke now. They kept trying to get me to come out and play with them. I was just like, “No. I’m not doing that. I’m not playing with girls.” They said, “Oh, you’ve got to come out and play with us.” And I was adamant. “No, I’m not playing with girls.” As the summer went on and school started, coaches started putting posters up around campus that they needed guys for the practice team. Right before the season started, I saw one of the posters that said “Free shoes, T-shirts, shorts.” Sold. That got me. I showed up at practice. Joe Ciampi was the coach at Auburn at the time, and I guess he told an assistant he didn’t want anybody taller than 6-foot-2, and he was hot that I showed up. He was not happy. “Why do you have this guy in here?” But he sent me to the post players, and he learned to love me. And I loved it. I knew then I was interested in getting into coaching. At that point, I didn’t think about coaching women; I was interested in coaching boys. And I thought this would be a great way to get in the business. But then I got out there. I developed a great respect for the girls that I didn’t have before. I was a practice player for the whole year, and I got to travel with them at the end of the year. At the time, the rules were a little different. I got to go to the NCAA tournament. That team lost in the Elite Eight. I got to go to Colorado for a week. I got to go to Seattle for a week. And I thought, This was awesome; I want to do this for the rest of my life. One of the managers left at the end of the year, and Coach Ciampi offered me a managerial position. . . . I got my last three years of school paid for, and I got to travel to all the games. It was a great experience. In the summer I started working camps and that’s how I eventually met Kellie. I never would have in a million years imagined I would be coaching women’s basketball. But that’s what I’m doing, and I love it.

What do you enjoy about it?
The girls are way more receptive than guys are. I remember how I was. I thought I knew it all. . . . . You’re going to have one or two girls here or there that aren’t this way, but they are usually extremely receptive to what you say. . . .  When you can say, “Hey, let’s try this,’ and they’ll go out and try it, that’s rewarding as a coach. Hopefully, it’ll work. I think getting them to do something they don’t believe they can do and then seeing them do it and succeed is really awesome. Everybody has got way more in them than they think they can do; you’ve just got to figure out a way to get it out of them and to motivate them to get at that point. They’ll look back on it and say, “Wow. I never thought I could do that.” Well, I did. I was trying to tell you for two years that you could do this type of thing. That sort of thing. That’s awesome. Last year, the team we had, we struggled mid-way through the year. We were 11-11 and won 10 straight games to make it to the NCAA tournament. When it was over, one of them in public thanked us and said, “We were miserable going through this, but you kept telling us that it was worth it. And it was absolutely worth it.” When something like that happens, that’s why I do what I do. The bad days aren’t anywhere near getting something like. Now, the ultimate goal is to win a national championship. But more than anything, if you can get a kid to reach her potential, that’s awesome. The reward from that and seeing their reaction is pretty cool. We tell these kids we’ve all won. I’ve got almost as many rings as my wife does. I don’t have a national championship ring, but I’ve got a ton of conference championship rings. And I love every single one of them. But we’ve been there and done that. I want a new group of kids to get to experience that.

How did you come to work primarily with the guards?
Everybody is like, ‘That’s bizarre.” Someone will come in say, ‘Oh, you work with the posts.” And I’ll tell them, ‘No, I work with the guards,’ And they’ll say, ‘What?’ I think growing up I was always bigger than everybody, but I also always had a ball in my hand and I always wanted to shoot 3s. I played more like a guard, and  then when I got to high school, we had a center that was 6-10, and I didn’t have to play center. Typically, they just stick the tall guy down on the block; well, they didn’t have to do that with me. When I got to college, and first started working with the girls, the coach automatically sent me down with the posts, because I’m tall and that’s what you’re supposed to do. I learned a ton doing that because I hadn’t had a whole lot of experience playing in the post. When Kellie and I worked at Chattanooga as the assistants, I worked with the post players. When we went to Western, the first two years, I worked with the post players. And then the opportunity came up to switch. I like working with the posts, and I like working with the guards. I don’t have a preference. If you watch me, I won’t hold my tongue to any one of them. But everybody looks at me, when they see I work with the guards and says “That’s bizarre.” The ways I’ve always played, the way I’ve always handled the ball, I always thought more like a guard than a post player. I see myself as a perimeter player, and I think can relate to them just fine, even though I am gigantic.

How did you and Kellie end up on the staff together at Chattanooga?
At the time she was at Auburn as an assistant. I was working at a golf course, and I was about to become a teaching pro. I had been working there for a year, and I loved it. I had wanted to coach college basketball, but it’s tough for two people who are married for both of you to be able to do that. . . .  [Chattanooga women’s basketball coach] Wes Moore called and inquired about Kellie. He remembered her at Tennessee, and during that process, they were talking and he asked, “What does your husband do?” She said, “Well he works at a golf course, but he wants to coach college basketball.” He actually had his third assistant position open at the time, and he did some background check on me. He’s very thorough. There’s no doubt that it was because of Kellie that’s how the opportunity came up, but he would not have just hired me. He’s very picky. He made some calls. He hired both of us as assistants. I learned a ton from him. And that was the best thing that could have ever happened to us. It was another level for us. She had been at Tennessee and an assistant Auburn; all I knew was Auburn. And going to a mid-major program is a night and day difference.

How so?
Financially. People who have been at this level [like ACC programs] have no idea what they [at the mid-major level] deal with on a day-to-day basis. Budget and everything else. . . . There are three or four there that do a job that 50 people are doing here. Going into that situation, we didn’t know what to expect. All the trips are on buses. We went on one plane trip a year. Well, at Auburn and Tennessee, every trip is a plane trip. And it was awesome. It was a blast. The bus trips. Six, seven, eight hours on a bus. It was one of those great experiences. We’re very fortunate to go through that, and it makes you appreciate everything we have here.

What did you learn under Wes Moore?
He’s a great coach. If you look at his winning percentage, the championships he’s won . . . He’s won every place he’s been at. Because he’s in a mid-major program, he’s probably underrated. He’s not as well-known nationally, but his winning percentage is up there with [Tennessee coach] Pat [Summitt], [Connecticut coach] Geno [Auriemma]. He’s a very, very good offensive coach, but then his teams are always good at defense. I think Kellie will even tell you, though she played for Pat Summitt and worked for Ciampi and I was around Ciampi, I think you could make the argument that we have taken as much away from Wes as we have the other two. A little bit from here and from there. The people in [Moore’s] program were going to be good people. Not to say that Coach Summitt and Coach Ciampi weren’t like that, but when you’re a lot younger, you don’t recognize that as being as important. And that was crucial to our success at Western. No. 1, we were going to have good people and that’s going to win out. I’m not saying you don’t have talent. But you can’t have one without the other. The basketball stuff [Moore] does is really good, whether it’s plays or the way he handles things, like dealing with budgets. He can squeeze $100 out of a nickel. There are little tricks of the trade we took with us. There is no doubt we couldn’t have had the success at Western without working for him and learning the way he did things.

Jon Harper on the two questions we ask everybody affiliated with the team

What do you want people to know about this program?
We’re good people. . . .  And that’s something I feel comfortable saying. We may not know anything about basketball, but I know we’re good people. And I think we’re fun to be around. We’re not exclusionary; we’ll sit and talk with you. Kellie has a lot more demands on her time than us [assistant coaches]. There may be times she says no, but it’s not because she wants to. She’s just got to because of time demands.

What are your favorite moments with the team so far?
This season has absolutely flown by. The Maryland game was pretty awesome. Someone told us after the game how much fun it looked like the kids were having. . . .  Some of the off-the court stuff like the road trips. I’ve missed several trips because I’ve been on the road recruiting, and I hate that. I like being around the players.  . . . On the road, you’ve got a lot of time together. You get into a conversation and watch them interact and do crazy stuff. It’s a fun group of kids. And we’re very fortunate to have this group. You never know what you’re getting into. You can inherit some tough situations. We’ve been very fortunate. These are good kids. They’ve been great.


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