SPARTA, Tenn. – Tennessee head women’s basketball coach Kellie (Jolly) Harper, who was born and raised in this small middle Tennessee city, was officially welcomed back to her hometown with a celebration of “Kellie (Jolly) Harper Day” on Thursday night at White County High School’s Roy Sewell Gymnasium.
Harper, who starred for the Warriors and joins her late father, Kenneth, and brother, Brent, in the school’s athletic hall of fame, entered the venue to hearty cheers from the crowd. She spent the first part of the evening signing autographs, posing for photos and catching up with old friends, neighbors, teachers and coaches. The event was part of UT Athletics’ Summer of Smokey, an initiative that aspires to make Big Orange-flavored visits to cites and towns all over the Volunteer State.
Harper’s high school coach, Steve Holland, addressed the crowd and shared stories and some of the attributes that made Harper the player she was for him and the late Tennessee legend Pat Summitt. Reflecting that Harper was like a coach on the floor as a point guard, he suspected long ago a career in coaching was on the horizon. Like the rest of the folks on hand, he was elated when he learned that Harper was returning to her alma mater to coach the Lady Vols.
Following Holland’s turn at the podium, Harper was given the first-ever key to the city by Sparta mayor Jeff Young and was the recipient of proclamations and personal gifts from state senator Paul Bailey and U.S. Representative John Rose.
White County Director of Schools Kurt Dronebarger stepped to the microphone next and made an announcement that brought the crowd to its feet and left Harper speechless for a moment. The basketball court at the new Findlay Elementary School gym is being named in her honor, a move that Lady Vol fans couldn’t help but find reminiscent of Coach Summitt, who has courts at Cheatham County High School, UT Martin and Tennessee bearing her name.
While speaking to the crowd, Harper expressed thanks for the special evening and the continued support throughout her career. She eventually transitioned into motivational mode, offering words of inspiration to those in attendance.
“Work hard, be dedicated, do things the right way,” Harper said. “You never know where your journey is going to take you. You don’t even know what your dreams are right now. If you have aspirations to be something special, just go for it.
“I didn’t even know this (UT head coaching job) was a dream, because it was Pat Summitt’s job. All of a sudden I get a phone call, and then an unbelievable opportunity and a dream that came true right in front of my eyes. It all started in this county, in this school and with you. I appreciate all of your support along the way.”
Following an interview session with members of the media from the Knoxville, Nashville, Sparta and Cookeville areas, Harper returned to the court to sign autographs and visit with everyone who stayed afterward hoping to catch up with their native daughter.