A Coach’s First Season

When she accepted the women’s basketball coaching job at NC State, Kellie Harper knew she was following in the footsteps of a legend and taking over a team that was hurting. Would she—and the team—be up for what it would take to move forward?

Before the first game of the season (Photo by Peyton Williams)

Before the first game of the season (Photo by Peyton Williams)

This story appears in the Spring 2010 issue of NC State magazine, a benefit of membership in the Alumni Association.

At about 9:10 p.m., on Friday, Oct. 19, 2009, Kellie Harper jogs onto Kay Yow Court in Reynolds Coliseum. Nearly 5,000 NC State fans are there to watch as the Wolfpack men’s and women’s basket-ball teams open the 2009–10 season with a public practice, the Red Rally. Wearing black warm-up pants and a red NC State T-shirt, with her long, blonde hair pulled into a ponytail, Harper grabs a microphone and does a 180-degree turn as she waves to the crowd and takes in a standing ovation. With an excited but steady voice, the 32-year-old women’s basketball coach says, “I promise you that you will be proud of the team we put on the court. They will play hard, they will play up-tempo, and they will play with a lot of energy. You will not want to miss it.”

Afterward, Harper reflects on the first practice, saying she didn’t have to say much to get the players excited. They were ready.

For some of the players, the 2008–09 season had been the longest of their lives. They had come to NC State to play for Kay Yow. She was a women’s basketball pioneer who had joined the Wolfpack in 1975, a coaching legend who had led the 1988 U.S. women’s basketball team to Olympic gold and a maternal figure who had taught them about perseverance and resilience. “We have little or no control over circumstances in life,” she often told them, “but we have 100 percent control over how we will respond.”

When they chose to come to NC State, the players knew of Yow’s history with breast cancer. She was first diagnosed with it in 1987; it came back during the 2004–05 season and again in 2006–07. Then came 2008–09. Calling it one of the hardest decisions of her life and citing the progression of her cancer, Yow announced on Jan. 6, 2009, that she would not return to the sideline that season. Eighteen days later, she died.

Every game from then on seemed like a memorial service. NC State players wore their pink jerseys with “Yow” on the back in her memory. The ACC teams they faced over the next month honored her, too, with moments of silence or with pink shoelaces, warm-ups and ribbons. The Pack played with a heavy heart.

The season ended March 3 when NC State lost in the first round of the ACC Tournament, finishing 13–17. It was only the fifth losing season in the program’s 35-year history. Five weeks later they learned that interim coach and Yow’s hand-picked successor, Stephanie Glance, would not be named their permanent coach.

Through it all, players felt like the world was watching them. “Poor NC State,” they’d heard others say. “First they lost their coach, and now they have to deal with a new coaching staff.”

People were supportive, offering condolences and words of encouragement. The players appreciated it, but they didn’t want anybody feeling sorry for them. “It’s life,” says senior Sharnise Beal. “You’re going to have hurdles. We want people to see that we’re jumping over them.”

In the locker room before the first game of the season. (Photo by Peyton Williams)

In the locker room before the first game of the season. (Photo by Peyton Williams)

At about 7:45 p.m., 30 minutes or so before NC State’s first regular-season game on Nov. 13, Harper stands in the team’s locker room and writes on a whiteboard as the players stretch in a training room next door. Using a red marker, she lists the points of emphasis for offense and defense. At the top of the whiteboard, she writes: “HAVE FUN.”

The players enter the locker room and take their seats. Harper addresses them. “This is what we’ve been waiting for, right?” She points to and expands on what she’s written. She goes over the defensive assignments for the five starters.

“OK. Any questions?” Harper asks. None.

“Right here,” Harper says, motioning the players to stand and circle around her. They do, and as they take each other’s hands, Harper says, “Let’s have fun, y’all. Have fun.”

She leads them in a prayer. As the players break their hold, one of them says, “First game. I’m so excited!”

“Hey,” Harper says, “we don’t get many of these, right? Make it count. Make it count. All right?”

They do, defeating Florida International 87–71. After the game, as Harper walks into the locker room, the players applaud her.

Like the NC State players, Harper knew what it was like to be in a spotlight. She had gone to the University of Tennessee, where playing in front of sold-out crowds was routine. And she had played for Pat Summitt, who has won more than 1,025 games—the most of any college basketball coach—and eight NCAA titles. “You could say,” sports journalist Mechelle Voepel wrote for ESPN.com about Harper, “. . . no coach on the women’s side of hoops has ever had two such iconic figures hovering over her career.”

Before accepting the head coaching job at NC State, Harper talked with Summitt about the opportunity. Harper felt like NC State was a good fit, but she needed reassurance. Summitt had no doubts. “Absolutely none,” says Summitt, who was a friend of Yow’s. “I have no doubt that she will do great things [at NC State]. . . . Not everybody has ‘it,’ but she has ‘it.’”

Summitt points to Harper’s playing career at Tennessee. Her freshman year, Harper was a back-up point guard
and shared the team’s Sixth Player of the Year award as the Lady Vols won the 1996 NCAA title. Her sophomore year, when she was expected to be the starting point guard, her team entered the season ranked No. 4 in the nation. But during a pre-season pickup game, Harper tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee. She spent six hours a day rehabbing it. Though she missed the first 16 games of the 1996–97 season, she was back to playing within two and a half months. “She came back from an injury quicker than anybody else has ever done in our program,” Summitt says. “It was amazing. Unheard of.”

Then, during a second-round game of the NCAA Tournament, she tore ligaments in her ankle. It should have ended her season, but she slept in a locker room for two nights so a trainer could provide continuous treatment. In the regional final, she scored 19 points as the Lady Vols advanced to the Final Four. In the title game, she had a career-high 11 assists, setting a tournament record, and Tennessee claimed its second straight title. The following season she scored a career-high 20 points in the 1999 national championship game to help lead the Lady Vols to their third straight title and a 39–0 record. “I knew then that she [was] going to be a great coach,” Summitt says. “She was incredibly focused and extremely competitive.”

That was something that Harper’s parents—Kenneth and Peggy Jolly—noticed early. For example, the family once went to Florida for a family vacation, and Kellie begged her father to buy her a basketball and drive around until they found an outdoor court she could play on. She spent her time on the beach doing conditioning drills. She was 12.
Her parents introduced her to the game. They had both played the sport at Tennessee Tech, and the day they took her home from the hospital after her birth, they took a photo of her with a basketball. She spent countless hours watching games and talking X’s and O’s with her father, a coach and a high school assistant principal. When she wasn’t helping out on the family’s tobacco farm in Sparta, Tenn., she was playing full-court, one-on-one games against her brother, Brent, who is three years younger, or heading out to a gym, spending entire weekends playing pickup game after pickup game against guys. When she was a sophomore at White County High School, she decided to be a coach. “I couldn’t imagine my life without [basketball],” she says.

And now, after five years at the helm of Western Carolina, where she compiled a 97–65 record and led her teams to two Southern Conference tournament titles and two NCAA Tournaments, Harper had come to NC State. She had other opportunities to leave Western, but her dream is to coach a team to a Final Four. “I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t feel like I could do that here,” she says.

So on the afternoon of April 16, 2009, about 30 minutes before a press conference to announce her hire, Harper walked into the Wolfpack women’s basketball team’s locker room. The players were waiting to meet her. The first words out of her mouth? “I love to win.”

As soon as Harper said that, senior guard Nikitta Gartrell says, “a whole lot of weight [lifted] off our shoulders.” No more worries about Yow’s illness. No more anxiety about who would be the next coach. “When Coach Kellie said winning, that’s all that we needed,” Gartrell says. “That’s what we wanted, too.”

 Marissa Kastanek (Photo by Tim O'Brien for NC State Student Media)

Marissa Kastanek (Photo by Tim O'Brien for NC State Student Media)

The team’s bus pulls into the parking lot at the Ted Constant Convocation Center in Norfolk, Va., for the first road game of the season on Nov. 23. Harper heads to the back, where the players sit, and tells them softly that Old Dominion University staff called and asked if it was OK if the Lady Monarchs wore pink jerseys in memory of Kay Yow. Harper says she told them it was fine. “So they’ll be wearing pink uniforms,” Harper says. “Just wanted you to know.” She goes back to the front of the bus and sits as the players file out.

“It was emotional,” junior forward Tia Bell says after the game, which the Pack won 62–52. “I still have pictures of Coach Yow in my room. And when I see pink anything, it makes me think of her.”

Marissa Kastanek wasn’t sure if she should still come to NC State after Yow’s death and the departure of the coaches who had recruited her. Raleigh was a long way from her hometown of Lincoln, Neb. She wondered if she’d still be comfortable so far away under a new coaching staff.

Harper had thought about how she would want to be treated by a new coach. The first several months after she took the job were a whirlwind. She spent time recruiting—traveling, writing letters, making phone calls, sending e-mails—and making the rounds for speaking engagements and media interviews. She sat in dozens of meetings to learn ACC and NC State policies. She spent time house hunting. But her top priority? The players.

Every chance she got she spent time with them, popping up at team functions and conditioning workouts. She’d have them over to her house for dinner and invite them to go horseback riding. She established an ongoing open-door policy, encouraging them to stop by anytime to chat. And the first phone calls she made after her first meeting with the players and the public announcement of her hire were to the players’ parents and to Kastanek.

She called Kastanek nearly every day thereafter and flew to Nebraska twice to meet with her. She assured Kastanek that she wanted her to come to NC State and that she would take care of her. Kastanek made one request: Keep the Walk of Honor and the timeline of Yow’s career that’s sketched on a hallway inside Reynolds Coliseum.

There were changes coming. New team policies such as a midnight curfew on weeknights, no more visible tattoos, no cussing. There were new defensive sets that incorporated more full-court pressure, new in-bounds plays, new strength and conditioning workouts, and an up-tempo and motion-oriented offense. With that came a new style to practices, new drills and new emphases. One example: Blocked shots no longer make the highlight reel. Instead, the coaches instruct the players to keep their feet on the ground and to get charges to force a turnover. “How many times do you really end up with the ball when you block a shot?” the coaches tell them. “We need every extra possession we can get.”

And, of course, there was an entirely new coaching staff, including Harper’s husband Jon (See “The Other Harper” ). But when the players visit the coaches in their offices today, they pass the timeline of Yow’s career and the Walk of Fame. And when they head down to the locker room, they walk on red-painted steps with white-lettered phrases laying out the “Wolfpack women steps to success,” including loyalty, poise, industriousness and enthusiasm. “Coach Harper is not trying to tear anything down; she’s not trying to stop any tradition,” redshirt junior guard Amber White says. “She’s just coming in here to put her own footprint on the game.”

(Photo by Peyton Williams)

(Photo by Peyton Williams)

During the bus ride to South Carolina for their Jan. 31 game against Clemson University, Harper tells the players she has a video clip she wants them to see. They have lost four of their last five games, dropping their record to 12–9. The first part of the season, the team often started games slowly. Sometimes they were able to overcome early deficits to pull out a win and sometimes they weren’t. Now, in the second half of the season, they often play well early and build a lead, but when the opponent makes a run late, they fall apart. The players need mental toughness, Harper says.

So up on the small TV screens pops a vintage commercial for Weeble Wobbles, a popular toy
in the 1970s and 1980s. She directs the players to soak in the tagline: “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.” Then, she passes a bag filled with the toys around and asks each player to pick out one.

“You’ve been playing so good in the first half,” she tells them, “but whenever the other team makes a run in the second half, we fall. But the Weeble Wobble, if it falls over, it gets right back up. That’s what we need to do. When we fall down, we need to get right back up.”

Every once in a while, assistant coach Stephanie McCormick says, one of the coaches will look at the others and ask: “You remember [the 2005–06 season]?”

In her first season at Western Carolina, Harper coached the Catamounts to their first Southern Conference tournament title and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. The coaching staff also had signed what they thought was Western’s best class ever. Then those recruits arrived and the 2005–06 season began. They lost their first nine games, did not win a single nonconference game and finished 9–20. Going back to Pee Wee league, it was the only losing season that Harper has had as a player or coach. “It was the hardest year of my life,” she says.

Even more than loving to win, Harper once said, “I hate to lose.” She can’t eat after a loss. Her emotions range from “hurt to anger to hurt to anger.” She questions everything. And no matter how well they might have played or how close they came, no loss is ever OK. “There’s no such thing as a moral victory, and almost is not good enough,” she says. “Every time I step onto the court, I expect to be the best.”

People often assume she developed that mindset when she was at Tennessee, she says. “But I’ve always been like that.” One early memory: She was in elementary school, and her T-ball team was playing in the championship game. They lost. To the Green Rockets. She bawled her eyes out. Then, “I was furious,” she says. “I’m still mad about that loss.”
So imagine how she felt losing 20 games during the 2005–06 season. “She didn’t know how to handle it,” McCormick says. “We were in a down¬ward spiral of a ride we couldn’t get off of.

“It was a misery of a year,” she adds, “but it was a necessary year.”

They did with that season what they tell the NC State players to do after each loss: Don’t dwell on the past, learn from it.

That 2005–06 season taught them the importance of team chemistry and bringing in kids you can build a program around. Players who love the game, who are gym rats, who want to be coaches, and who spend their free time playing pick-up ball, Harper says. They have a toughness, a competitiveness, a grit about them. They’re versatile. They can dribble with their right hand and left hand, and they know how to score. Above all, they have good character. “There are no shortcuts to building a program the right way,” Harper says. “I expect to be good doing it the right way.”
And if you stick with your philosophy—and if you learn from each loss—good things will happen, she says. Take what happened with the Catamounts. The year after that 20-loss season, they lost just 10 games and won 24—the most in school history—and they shared their first-ever Southern Conference regular season championship. It was the best turnaround among NCAA teams that season.

Amber White during the Hoops 4 Hope game (Photo by Peyton Williams)

Amber White during the Hoops 4 Hope game (Photo by Peyton Williams)

All week redshirt junior Amber White has thought, “We can’t lose this game.” It’s Feb. 14, and it’s Hoops 4 Hope, an event that Yow created five years ago to raise awareness for breast cancer. The showcase: NC State—in pink jerseys, pink socks and pink shoes—versus Miami, in Reynolds Coliseum, for a nationally-televised game. Coming off their worst loss of the season, 70–39 to No. 7 Duke, the Wolfpack stand 13–11 overall and 3–6 in the ACC. They need to win to have a chance at post season play. Even more so, White says, they want to make Yow proud.

White scores 10 of her 13 points in the first half to help NC State cut into an early 12-point deficit and go into halftime trailing 35–29. And even as the Pack trail Miami 48–40 with 13:45 left, Harper sees fire in the players’ eyes. “They did not want to lose this game, for so many reasons,” she says.

Junior Brittany Strachan hits a three-pointer. Kastanek adds another one. Sophomore Bonae Holston makes several baskets. Beal scores all six of her points in a two-minute span. And Gartrell nails a short jumper with 1:52 left to tie the score at 64–64.

White drives the lane and puts up a floater. Kastanek, on the opposite side, hears assistant coach Richard Barron yell, “Go rebound!” She darts to the paint, grabs the ball in midair, and without landing, puts the shot back up. Good! NC State up 66–64 with 1:05 left.

The Pack foul, sending a Miami player to the line for a one-and-one free throw with 51 seconds left. Most of the announced crowd of 6,450 stand to cheer, hoping to distract the free-throw shooter.

“Wow,” White thinks, “there are so many people here . . . and to support this cause is amaz-ing.” Harper thinks, “I’ve never heard [Reynolds] this loud.”

The player misses. Kastanek grabs the rebound. The Pack commit a turn¬over. Miami runs the clock down to about nine seconds and calls a time¬out. Harper asks her players what defense they would be most comfortable playing in the final seconds. NC State comes out in a man-to-man. Miami misses a contested shot, and White grabs the defensive rebound. The buzzer sounds. NC State 66, Miami 64.

After the game, the team huddles at center court. They clap their hands three times and yell, “Together!”

In January 2010, a year after Yow’s death, Harper brought her entire staff together for a meeting. She wanted to pay tribute to Yow, and she asked for their ideas. The result: On Feb. 14, during the Miami game, nearly 40 former Wolfpack players unveiled three banners hung in the rafters of Reynolds. The banner in the middle includes an image of Yow and her years of service to NC State (1975–2009); the two side banners recognize her 2002 induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and her number of career victories (737). “Kay Yow is and will always be a legend,” Harper says.

Among the former players in attendance that day was Debbie Mulligan Antonelli ’86, a basketball analyst for ESPN and Fox Sports Net and a three-year starter under Yow. “I think Coach Yow would have been proud,” Antonelli says. “But she’s still here.” At halftime of every game, for example, White echoes one of Yow’s expressions: “When you get down, don’t give up. When you get ahead, don’t let up.” And Antonelli points to the Pack’s play to defeat Miami. “Resiliency. Coming back. Fighting to the end,” she says. “That’s Coach Yow. And that’s how she would define this team.”

The Pack entered the season picked to finish ninth in the ACC. During one stretch of league play, they lost six of nine games. Then, despite losing key reserve and post player Tia Bell to a knee injury, they won four of five games to finish the regular season 17–12 and tied for fifth in the ACC with a 7–7 league record. As the sixth seed in the ACC Women’s Tournament, they won three games in three days to advance to the championship. Though they fell 70–60 to Duke in the title game, they put themselves in position to earn their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2007, when the seniors were fresh¬men and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. Kastanek, whom Harper says represents “what I want this program to be about—that heart, that hustle and that desire”—was also named the ACC Freshman of the Year. “It’s a long season, and a lot of times a team will hit a wall. At that point they can bounce back or stay down,” Harper says.“[The players] kept fighting. Most of them have been through a lot these past few years, but they have shown resiliency.”

Harper once met Yow. When she was at Western, she and the Catamounts came to Reynolds in December 2007 for a game against NC State. Before the game, which NC State won 72–53, Harper shook Yow’s hand near mid court and told her, “It’s an honor to play you here.”

“There was such a feel about [Yow] when she stepped onto the court—her court,” Harper says.

Now this is Harper’s program and her home court is Kay Yow Court. When she first met with the NC State players, she told them that she had big shoes to fill, and as much as she would like to be Kay Yow, she couldn’t be her. “The best person I can be is me,” she told them. “I have to be me, and in my opinion, that’s the best way I can honor her.”

Being Kellie Harper means being a winner. So at NC State, she envisions coaching tough, winning teams that contend for championships. “I think we could be competing for championships in three or four years,” she says. “Does that mean we won’t win before then? No. . . . You’ll never win if you don’t expect to win every time you take the court.” Did the players buy into that mindset? “She’s won three national championships,” Gartrell says. “How can you not?”

In November, Harper walked into the locker room before a practice as the play¬ers were watching A Cinderella Season, an HBO-produced documentary that fol¬lowed the Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team throughout Harper’s sophomore season. Harper started watching with them. When they got to the Final Four scenes that showed Harper and her team¬mates celebrating their second of three straight national titles, Harper turned to her players and said: “You’ve got to do that. You’ve got to experience a Final Four. It’s that powerful.”

“Dream it. Believe it. Do it,” she says.

(Photo by Peggy Boone of NC State Student Media)

(Photo by Peggy Boone of NC State Student Media)

On Feb. 21, in Chapel Hill, the Pack find themselves trailing UNC 50–42 with about 13 minutes left. Time out. Harper doesn’t like her players’ body language; they look like they’ve already lost. “Change it,” she tells them. “Be confident. You can do it.” They outscore the Tar Heels 32–13 the rest of the game and win 74–63. The last time they beat the Tar Heels was in Reynolds Coliseum on Feb. 16, 2007, the day its court was named after Yow.

Immediately after the game, as the players head to the locker room, Harper sits courtside for a post-game radio interview. After she finishes, she waves to a group of about 40 NC State fans on the second level of Carmichael Auditorium who are chanting her name. She heads to the locker room to speak to her team. A few minutes later she enters the media room for a post-game press conference. Holston, who scored a team-high 20 points, and Kastanek, who scored 17 points, attend it, too. The Weeble Wobble Harper gave them weeks ago may seem silly, the players say, but it made a difference. It’s a reminder that their coach believes in them, and if she can believe in them, then they should believe in themselves, too.

Within 30 minutes, all the players and coaches have taken their seats on the team bus. But as it pulls away from Carmichael at about 5 p.m., Harper—with a bag over her shoulder and a dark, pin-striped suit in her hand—stands alone on the side of the road in front of the arena, waiting for her parents, who have driven eight hours from Tennessee to be there.

“I am,” Harper says, “exactly where I am supposed to be.”

The Other Harper

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

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

In the summer of 1997, Kellie Jolly was sitting in a meeting for basketball-camp counselors at the University of Tennessee. In walked the 6-foot-7 Jon Harper, then a student at Auburn University and a manager on the Tigers’ women’s basketball team. Kel¬lie noticed him immediately. “Who is that?” she asked a friend. The friend didn’t know. “Well, that is the type of guy I could go for,” Kellie said. They married in May 1999. Today, he’s a volunteer assistant coach with the NC State women’s basketball team. They’re one of eight couples in the country who coach together at the college level. “He’s in a position that can’t be easy at times,” Kellie Harper says.

How did you and Kellie end up coaching together?
She was at Auburn as an assistant [in 2001]. I was working at a golf course, and I was about to become a teaching pro. [Chattanooga women’s basketball coach] Wes Moore called and inquired about Kellie. During the process, he asked, “What does your husband do?” She said, “Well, he works at a golf course, but he wants to coach college basketball.” He had his third assistant position open at the time, and he did [a] background check on me. He’s very thorough. There’s no doubt that the opportunity came up [because of Kellie].

How are you two able to work together and maintain a healthy marriage?

We have a lot of respect for each other. I 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’re both pretty laid-back and like to have a good time. We’re not too serious [except about basketball and about winning with good people]. 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.

Because of state and university nepotism policies, you’re a volunteer. Why work without pay?
Everybody has way more in them than they think; you’ve just got to figure out a way to get it out of them and to motivate them to get at that point. Last year, the team we had [at Western Carolina] struggled midway 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 [the players] 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. 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.

Cherry Crayton ’01, ’03 med