By Jimmy Hyams
The Tennessee Lady Vols won 19 games last season – the fewest since 1976.
The team was on the NCAA Tournament bubble for the first time. It wasn’t competitive in the SEC regular-season race. The coach was fired.
So Kellie Harper, a former star for the Lady Vols, takes over a rebuilding job that features a brutal non-conference schedule featuring Notre Dame, Texas, Stanford and – for the first time in more than a decade – UConn.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma didn’t seem to think playing Tennessee was a big deal, calling it “just another game.’’
That was a slap in the face to a storied program that has won eight national championships. But, fact is, it’s a program that hasn’t been to the Final Four since 2008 and hasn’t won an SEC title of any sort in four years.
Harper was asked recently her reaction to Auriemma’s comment.
“Well, I think everybody is entitled to their own opinion,’’ Harper said. “I don’t think we’re just another program, but I guess everybody can say whatever they feel like they need to say.’’
Her thoughts on playing UConn?
“Well, it’s a big game that’s going to do a lot of good,’’ Harper said. “I think there’s a lot of fundraising around that game. There’s a lot of excitement and a lot of talk generated about that game. Hopefully there’s some foundation that can benefit greatly because of it.’’
While UConn v. UT is just another game to Auriemma, don’t be surprised if it’s one of the highest TV rated women’s regular-season games this season, even if UT’s program hasn’t been on par with UConn’s for quite a while.
Would Harper like to play UConn on a regular basis?
“It’s a good question,’’ she said. “I think it’s something we’ll have to sit down and evaluate as a staff and look at our current schedule and see what commitments we have for the future.
“But obviously for us we want to play really high-caliber teams. Obviously, UConn is that. We’ll just have to look and see if that schedule will allow for that and see where we go from there.’’
UT-UConn was once the best rivalry in women’s basketball, featuring two iconic coaches with talented players.
“When the teams were playing No. 1 (v.) No. 2 it was really good for women’s basketball,’’ Harper said. “There was a lot of rivalry and competitiveness around in that game. A lot of people talked about it. A lot of people watched it. Maybe even non-women’s basketball fans watched that game. So, it was good for our game.’’
What was Harper’s opinion of Auriemma when she played for UT?
“Honestly as a player, I didn’t have a lot of opinions on coaches,’’ Harper said. “I really couldn’t go there. I respected everybody that we played and everybody’s coaching staff. I didn’t have any insight.’’
Was Harper offended when Aeriemma throw barbs at Pat Summitt?
“That was after my time,’’ Harper said. “I think Geno is a very good coach and he’s a clever coach as well.’’
For Tennessee to return to greatness, it must play at a high level every game.
“I think the great teams are consistent,’’ Harper said. “They don’t have a lot of off nights. I think that’s going to be a word that we’re going to use a lot.
“And you just don’t flip the switch for games. You have to be consistent in practice and in your daily routine and understand that the process is going to be the most important thing for our team. We’re going to work really hard about how we’re doing things daily to reach a goal, but the end is not the most important thing right now. It is the daily process. It’s going to help us be the best basketball team we can be.’’
Harper says there is “definitely’’ more parity in the women’s game compared to 20 years ago.
“You have more teams going to the NCAA tournament that have an opportunity to win the national championship,’’ she said. “Right now, to put yourself in a contention to be in the Final Four, you’re not just trying to beat three teams. You’ve got 10-15 teams that can get there every single year. So we want to be one of those teams.’’