Harper quickly finds a home at NC State

RALEIGH, N.C. -- This has to make you laugh. Picture Kellie Harper, who once distributed the ball to the likes of Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings, dribbling up the court in a church-league game out in the western part of North Carolina.

And quickly realizing her assist options were rather … limited.

"Let's just say I shot a lot more," Harper said, laughing. "I don't play very much competitively now. Early on in workouts, I was jumping into some drills with our players. But last year, I played in a church league.

"It's hard to go out there and try to do what I did 10 years ago. I'm a perfectionist, so I want to be good at whatever I do. I'll just tell you … if I have a church league game on Friday night, I'm probably going to practice on Wednesday and Thursday."

A year ago, Harper was at Western Carolina, already a successful young head coach who everyone assumed would make the jump to a larger conference sooner rather than later. Indeed, this past spring, she moved east and took over at North Carolina State.

You could say Harper has every advantage as a coach. Having started at point guard for three NCAA title teams at Tennessee (1996, '97 and '98) is the women's hoops equivalent to a Harvard MBA in the business world, right?

Add in that at age 32 she has so much energy that she … well, actually practiced for church-league games, and Harper was clearly a dream candidate for moving up.

But you could also say no coach on the women's side of hoops has ever had two such iconic figures hovering over her career. However, if Harper was of the personality to be intimidated by that, she wouldn't have played for Pat Summitt nor taken over for Kay Yow.

Yow, who passed away in January, had led the program since 1975 and her battle against cancer had become symbolic with Wolfpack women's basketball. Yow wanted her associate head coach, Stephanie Glance, to replace her.

The move instead to Harper bothered a significant number of NC State women's hoops alums, who are more attached to their program than is the case at a lot of schools. That was because of Yow, a coach who never forgot a birthday or an anniversary, someone for whom old-fashioned, snail-mail card-sending never went out of style.

"Coach Yow connected so strongly to her players and allowed them to continue to be such a big part of this program after they graduated," Harper said. "That's part of the reason NC State is so special."

Understandably, it was hard for many of those who'd played for Yow (or for both Yow and Glance) to see another point of view. To do so felt irreverent to a figure so revered. However, to outsiders, it was more obvious that a change -- while unavoidably painful -- was needed. And that's what NC State's brain trust decided to do.

"I feel this staff brought in a great energy," Wolfpack sophomore Emili Tasler said. "They made this transition a lot easier than it could have been."

Harper was better prepared for this challenge than almost anyone else could have been. Her five seasons at Western Carolina meant she already knew every high school and AAU contact in the state and surrounding region.

But even more important, she was already accustomed to answering questions about a legend. As soon as she became a head coach, the comparisons to and questions about Summitt were automatic. They still are.

Similarly, when she took the Wolfpack job, she fully understood that she'd have to talk about Yow -- at least for her first season in Raleigh -- as much as she did her own philosophies and ideas.

After the initial wave of that in the preseason and nonconference play, she'll face it as she visits various ACC cities the rest of this season. Then, if the Wolfpack are able to make it to the postseason -- NC State is currently 7-5 -- she'll face another round of it.

But Harper isn't bothered by it. None of this is unexpected.

"It was something I knew I'd have to deal with," she said. "I definitely understood the situation that I was entering.

"I did not know Coach Yow very well personally, but of course I knew her reputation. Everybody did. One of the biggest parts of her was how good she was, her character. I'd like to think I'm a good person. Coach Summitt felt like this was a great fit for me, and part of it is that she thought Coach Yow and I stood for a lot of the same things."

One thing that is palpable is Harper's eagerness to cultivate the possibilities at NC State that exist because of the feeling that graduates have about the school. It reminds her of Tennessee -- that deep institutional pride that is not so evident everywhere.

It's easy to get fans and alumni worked up about football and men's basketball when those teams are winning. Obviously, they are the ultimate bandwagon sports on college campuses.

But there are places where other sports have a real chance to gain a foothold in fans' affections with the right combination of success and a coach's popularity. NC State can be such a place.

And not to speak in rank generalizations, but … oh, you know how it is. NC State folks are used to rolling their eyes at the perceived elitism of Duke and self-reverence of North Carolina. If you're from outside the Triangle and have no allegiance to any of the schools, can you possibly not find yourself at least a little in the Wolfpack's corner?

Harper hopes to tap into all of that. She doesn't want anyone to forget about Yow -- that's not even possible -- but rather to feel the verve of a handoff in a great, unending race. Yow spent 34 years creating something. Harper doesn't want or need to recreate it. She wants to irrigate it, expand it and watch it grow.

"The very first caravan I spoke at, I received a standing ovation," Harper said. "Which was something I wasn't expecting. That has been the response every time I go out in the community -- the NC State fans have been amazing. They've all been very supportive. They love their school and their teams. The opportunities here are limitless.

"I am so excited about the potential fan base here. If we can get our program to be consistent and compete for championships, I think we can put a lot of people in Reynolds Coliseum. It would be an amazing atmosphere."

She's right -- and that should be no small selling point when it comes to recruiting and program-building. Reynolds, like North Carolina's Carmichael Auditorium, is a hoops home for women only, as the State men's basketball team plays at the RBC Center off campus.

Reynolds, especially, is the kind of building that no one now would recreate. Opened in 1949, it's a brick fortress of another age, when gyms were multipurpose facilities. Reynolds is still home to the campus' ROTC services, plus State's volleyball, gymnastics and wrestling teams.

The court, though, is named after Yow, and in some ways, Reynolds will always feel like "her" building. It's a quirky place with nooks and crannies and narrow hallways and the smell of age-old popcorn and floor wax. There are, charmingly, too many seats at each end of the court, and you get the feeling of transporting yourself back in time as soon as you walk in. It is, in a word, wonderful.

If any place should create an edge for the hosts and make its visitors feel as if they are intruding on someone else's home, it's Reynolds.

Harper's office, the same one Yow once sat in, is right there a few strides from the court. Harper can envision a time when the place is packed, the way it was for a famous triple-overtime game with Virginia back in 1991, when the two programs were national powers.

Harper was still Kellie Jolly then, an eighth-grader in Sparta, Tenn., with her sites already set on a basketball career. At Tennessee, she would have mostly great times, but some hard ones, too. A knee injury kept her out the first 16 games of the 1996-97 season, during which Tennessee lost 10 times but still won the NCAA final, in which she had 11 assists.

The next year, Tennessee went 39-0, triumphing at the only Final Four that Yow's Wolfpack advanced to. In the '98 title game against Louisiana Tech, Harper showed that she could indeed score when needed, as she had 20 points.

Her senior year didn't end as she wanted, with a loss in the Elite Eight to Duke. But Harper, who got her degree in mathematics, quickly jumped into the coaching world.

She married Jon Harper, who is and always has been an integral part of her coaching career; he's on the staff now at NC State. He is an Auburn grad, and that's where Kellie got started as an administrative assistant in 1999. The next season, she elevated to assistant coach.

In the fall of 2001, she moved to an assistant's job at Chattanooga. In 2004, she took over as head coach at Western Carolina, where she went 97-65 and made two NCAA tournament appearances.

Part of her success has been understanding that most of the players she coaches are probably not going to remind her a great deal of herself at their age.

"I'm not coaching Kellie Jolly," she said, referring to the fact she never needed external motivation. "I have to know what buttons to push with this generation."

Yes, she's talking about a generation even younger than she is. Harper, who turned 32 in May, doesn't seem that far removed from her days as Kellie Jolly, Tennessee point guard, because that time itself doesn't seem so far away.

Or does it?

One of her NC State players, Brittany Strachan, expressed some amazement that players back in Harper's "time" didn't all carry cell phones or send hundreds of text messages a day.

"Really?" Strachan said. "But that was the '90s! Oh, my gosh!"

Strachan, a junior averaging 8.3 points per game, said that all the returning Wolfpack players went through some roller-coaster emotions last winter and spring.

"We were very sad when Coach Yow passed away," she said. "We didn't know what was going to happen next. But as soon as we met Coach Harper, we realized we were going to be in good hands.

"It's been fun to get to know the new coaches and their families. We had to learn a new playbook, and do that quickly. That's been the biggest challenge. Every coach wants their players to play hard, and that's been consistent. Our coaches last year and this year expected us to get better every day."

As for the emotional aspect of the transition, Harper said she told the players they all could deal with it the way that was best for them.

"I never wanted our players to feel like they shouldn't talk about Coach Yow, or that we were expecting the grieving process to be over," Harper said. "Also I didn't come in here like I knew exactly what they're going through. I said if they wanted to talk about it, I was here. And if they didn't want to talk about it, that was OK, too. I think that was really important for them to hear."

What Harper could offer, immediately, was what she always has given to every team she has been involved with, as a player and a coach. It's what she'll keep giving to the Wolfpack.

"You feed off your coaches," Strachan said. "Just to see her energy and passion every day -- you can't help but pick up on that."

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