"It became my dream job:" Kellie Harper takes WVLT home to Sparta

SPARTA, Tenn. (WVLT) - The ones who know Kellie Harper best say she's competitive, passionate and a teacher. Her high school math teacher said she "did a good job in everything she did."

Sign in Sparta, Tenn. reads "Welcome home Kellie Harper." / Source: WVLT

But if you ask Harper how she would describe herself, she said she she's just a small town kid from Sparta, Tennessee who grew up growing tobacco, riding horses and playing basketball.

WVLT News anchor Brittany Tarwater visited with Harper and her family in Sparta to learn more about the new Lady Vol coach and White County High School standout.

Growing up, Harper was surrounded by basketball. Her father Kenneth, the oldest of two brothers who also played basketball and went on to coach, was also a standout player and coach.

"I thought he knew everything there was to know about basketball. He taught me how to shoot, he'd draw up plays on a napkin, how to watch the game in a different way, to see not just the ball but the whole court. How many people can watch at the same time and understand how the game was played. That really shaped how I view basketball today," said Harper.

Her mom, Peggy Jolly, a college ball player herself, played at Tennessee Tech against Pat Summitt in college.

"She was a post and I was a guard and I was going in and she was coming out from under the goal and I told her that I was sneaking in on the backside," laughed Jolly as she showed WVLT News pictures of her and Summitt from her college bulletin.

In a house full of athletes, Kellie learned to be competitive at an early age.

"My husband had to break up a few fights," laughed Jolly.

"Those get pretty competitive around Christmas time. For a couple years we had to cancel, no more card games, no more board games for a little while because it gets too heated," said younger brother Ross Jolly.

"Everything she did when she was little was natural and won at everything, Tee-ball and junior pro basketball and she was just a happy kid so she just thought that's what you're supposed to do, go and win," added Peggy about her daughter.

"I think she might have lost 4-5 games. She only lost one game in this gym. We were number one in the nation while she was here, we were number one in the state every year she was here," said Harper's high school basketball coach Steve Holland.

It's a drive she has said she got from her father, who died in 2012.

"My dad was my hero growing up, simply put. He was the best person I knew. Just an unbelievable human being. He was the hardest working person I knew. He'd work all day as assistant principal, come home and change clothes and work in the tobacco fields all night except on Sunday he wouldn't work on Sunday," said Harper.

"I used to tell people when I was 13-years-old that I worked like a man in the tobacco fields. We'd pull plants, we'd set, we'd cut 'em, spike 'em, hail 'em. I listened to more Tennessee football games on the radio in the barn stripping tobacco. I remember John Ward's call while stripping tobacco. Looking back it was an amazing experience."

A fierce player on the court, a three-time NCAA national champion with the Lady Vols, Harper said she still remembers the year her team didn't win the title.

"Going into coaching and realizing early on how hard it is to win, consistently, at an elite level. That's when I realized what we did was incredible. I'm still bitter, I still struggle that we didn't win our 4th, but it's probably a good thing because you couldn't fit my head in the door of any gym."

But mostly, she remembers what she learned from Coach Summitt.

"Being a Lady Vol, you are just so proud, oozing with pride, what we did. We're territorial a little bit, especially with Pat. She was ours. We shared her, but she was ours."

Harper was named Lady Vol head coach in 2019. She and husband and assistant coach Jon moved back to Knoxville with their two children to take over the team.

"My children are a big priority for me now, my family, my faith, our basketball team. Those are priorities for me. A lot of people have asked me how we separate basketball from family and we don't. It's all part of us," she said.

The small town girl has big shoes to fill as she gets back on the court in the orange and white.

"Is this a dream job? No, people are always taken aback when I say that but no, this has always been Pat's job and she's never leaving that. And when she was no longer there, I supported Holly and wanted her to win, and until I got that first phone call it really wasn't a dream job or anything I dreamed about, but after that call it became my dream job."

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Kellie Jolly on the court as a high school basketball player