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Wednesday, April 22, 2009
High expectations face Jolly Harper

By Mechelle Voepel
Special to ESPN.com

Sometimes paths intersect briefly, even indirectly, and the significance of that meeting is apparent only in retrospect. So it is that we look back to the 1998 Women's Final Four, when Kay Yow reached her peak as a college coach and Kellie Jolly did the same as a college player.

Yow led her NC State team to its lone Final Four appearance, where the Wolfpack fell to Louisiana Tech in the semifinals. Jolly, then a junior point guard, directed a very talented Tennessee team to a 39-0 season and the program's third consecutive national championship.

Kellie Harper
Kellie Jolly Harper was 97-65 with two NCAA tourney appearances at Western Carolina.

Yow was, at that point, 11 years removed from her first diagnosis of breast cancer, and she looked healthy and vibrant. She had been coach at NC State since 1975 and was so universally liked and respected that her trip to the Final Four was celebrated not just by State fans but also by all of women's basketball.

Jolly, the girl with the French braid, was always finding the right way to feed the ball to superstars such as fellow junior Chamique Holdsclaw and freshman Tamika Catchings. She not only expected to be the one whom coach Pat Summitt yelled at no matter who made a mistake, she relished being that person.

Young Tyler Summitt had a little-boy crush on Jolly, and he certainly wasn't the only fellow in Tennessee who felt that way. Jolly, from Sparta, Tenn., was living the schoolgirl dream of a native of the Volunteer state -- playing for a legendary coach while preparing for her own coaching career as well.

At White County High School, Jolly had been voted most athletic, graduated third in her class and won the Daughters of the American Revolution's Good Citizen Award.

She spoke with a Southern accent and said "Yes, ma'am" and "No, ma'am." She said she needed to sign every autograph and talk to every little kid who came to games because she knew they looked up to her. And she listed this quote as her favorite in the Tennessee media guide for that perfect season: "A good leader takes a little more of the blame and a little less of the credit."

Uh-huh. Who does that sound like?

For heaven's sake, Jolly and Yow both could have been "Steel Magnolias" characters. Jolly was the same All-American girl wonder from the South who Yow had been, just born 35 years later.

And what an astonishing impact those years made in terms of the opportunities Jolly had compared with Yow's. When Yow graduated from Gibsonville (N.C.) High in 1960, she had to put basketball aside. There were a handful of colleges where women might play hoops, but realistically no such thing as a national sport. She went to East Carolina and studied to become a teacher.

As we know, however, Yow sort of fell into coaching high school girls, then moved on to college and became one of the sport's pioneers. It was because of people like Yow that people like Jolly grew up knowing that basketball was a viable way for a young woman to pay for college and make a career in the sport if she wanted to and was good enough.

Jolly's parents both had played basketball at Tennessee Tech, and her dad was a coach. Basketball was always at the center of her world. It had been that way for Yow, too, even when she had few outlets for it.

Was it right to start fresh after Kay Yow's death? Or should Stephanie Glance have gotten a chance to truly show what she could do when not tending to, and deferring to, her terminally ill mentor and friend? There will be different opinions, but in the end, it's now Kellie Jolly Harper's program. She is young, energetic, committed to her players' academics and ready to compete in a major conference as a coach, just as she once did as a player.

Tennessee and NC State didn't face off in the 1998 Final Four. In fact, the programs never met at all during Jolly's playing career. But their lives indirectly intersected in Kansas City.

Jolly's college career ended in 1999 in the Elite Eight. She graduated, moved into coaching, worked at Auburn, then Chattanooga, started her first season as head coach at Western Carolina in the fall of 2004 when she was just 27, married a fellow coach named Jon Harper.

In five seasons at Western Carolina, she posted a 97-65 record and took the team to the NCAA tournament twice. In 2007, she faced NC State and Yow at Reynolds Coliseum. Now Kellie Harper, she couldn't know then that two years hence, she would be directing the Wolfpack and Reynolds would be her home.

Thursday, it was announced she had received a five-year deal with a base salary of $247,000 -- about $238,000 more than Yow made during her first season with the Wolfpack. Yow could never quite remember her initial salary, except that it was less than $10,000 and the big thrill for her was she didn't have to also teach (she could focus only on coaching), plus she got the use of a car.

Amazingly different world, isn't it? That was 1975, and it reflects not just the different economy of 34 years ago but the fact that it was at the birth of modern-day women's collegiate athletics. Title IX had been signed into law in 1972, and by 1975, universities were fully realizing they had to provide women opportunities in sports.

The NCAA wasn't yet involved in governing women's college athletics, and coaching jobs in women's sports didn't pay well and had little, if any, prestige. That was Yow's world when she took over the Wolfpack, but she was happy.

And she was successful. NC State and Maryland dominated the early years of the ACC, and the Wolfpack's status as a top contender continued into 1991, when NC State had 27 victories.

Then Yow had some lean years, including her second losing season with the program, in 1993-94. The 1997-98 season turned out to be magical, but it was also the pinnacle.

NC State had fallen behind its Triangle rivals, North Carolina and Duke. The Wolfpack became the spunky underdog, not the top dog. NC State still made the NCAA tournament seven times after that 1998 season, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2007.

But it was during that season when Yow was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, and the focus of the program went more toward her inspiring battle with the disease. The "Think Pink" initiative (now known as the Pink Zone) swept across the country, and when you thought of NC State women's basketball, you thought of Yow's fight against cancer.

Yow wanted to retire and see her assistant, associate head coach Stephanie Glance, moved into the head-coaching job. Yow pleaded with school officials to make that decision. It didn't happen. Yow stayed on the job until January of this year, when she was nearly at the end of her life.

Yow died on Jan. 24, and it appeared pretty clear then that NC State athletic director Lee Fowler had no intention of retaining Glance. He thought the program was ready to move forward under someone else.

That someone is about to turn 32 years old in May, brings a championship pedigree as a player and is obviously quite familiar with recruiting in North Carolina. Wolfpack fans are hopeful of what the future can be under Harper.

But it won't be a painless transition by any means. Harper will deal with recruits who planned to sign with NC State and now are looking at their other options. She will need to earn the trust and respect of her new players. She might face some resentment from those fans and the alumni who are angry Glance wasn't retained.

That wasn't Harper's decision, of course, but that doesn't change the fact that she's now in the job that those people thought should go to someone else. Harper will win over some of those folks quickly, some gradually … and some not at all.

NC State's women's hoops alumni were extraordinarily devoted to Yow, and that was a big part of what made the program special -- the connection that players even decades apart in age could have to one another through Yow. They can maintain that, though, even if some of them now may choose to dissociate themselves from NC State.

Nothing will ever change the past and all that Yow -- and Glance -- meant to NC State. But athletic departments really are not "family," no matter how often the people involved might give voice to that pretty myth. Division I college athletics are about winning, period, if it's football and men's hoops. In women's hoops, it's about winning and graduating, and if you can bring in a little money to help offset your expenses, that's great, too.

Maybe this sounds cynical, but it's just realistic. Harper's salary is not considered large by any stretch in the top levels of women's basketball, but it's still a heck of a lot more than most people make. There are expectations to meet, and NC State decided Harper was the best person to meet them.

Was it right to start fresh after Yow's death? Or should Glance have gotten a chance to truly show what she could do when not tending to, and deferring to, her terminally ill mentor and friend?

There will be different opinions, but in the end, it's now Harper's program. She is young, energetic, committed to her players' academics and ready to compete in a major conference as a coach, just as she once did as a player.

Can she push the Wolfpack back to the top of the ACC? Can she go head-to-head in recruiting with Carolina, in particular, and win some of those battles? Is she on her way to another Final Four someday, this time in Wolfpack red?

We don't know any of that. We know just that Harper starts this leg of her life's journey where Yow's ended. Yes, Yow hoped Glance would follow in her footsteps, and at least to some degree, any other choice would have disappointed her.

But Yow also would see and admire in Kellie Jolly Harper many of the things others always saw and admired in Yow.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.