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Apathy could be Lady Vols toughest foe 

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The most gut-wrenching aspect of Tennessee’s basketball programs after a weekend of disappointment is that most parties involved are just so darn likeable – if the Vols athletic department even cares.

Let’s take Rick Barnes for instance. He’s the type of guy that you’d like for you mom to date if things didn’t work out with ol’ dad. He’s so honest that he’ll tell you why he almost quit on the Vols to take a dream job like UCLA.

Lady Vols’ head coach Kellie Harper was once the spunky point guard that led her team to championship heights. She also played for Lady Vol legend Pat Summit. However, Harper nor Barnes were quite as adored after Barnes’ team couldn’t make a shot and Harper’s team couldn’t play defense on Saturday.

That could make for an interesting March. If the Vols shoot like they shot in their loss against Kentucky, the Vols will get bounced out of the NCAA Tournament early, which is sort of a Barnes’ tradition. As for the Lady Vols, they might be looking for a new head coach.

There goes the feel-good vibes that the Vols were feeling last week and the Lady Vols must have been feeling when they decided to allow open three-point shots in the final seconds of a game was a wise decision. Such is March.

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One has to wonder what will become of the two coaches now that elimination games are on the horizon. Is it possible that the Vols could be replacing two basketball coaches following this season? Certainly. Barnes, who will be 70 in July, has had a long, distinguished career and could retire at any moment. No matter what the Vols manage in the NCAA Tournament, Barnes could look at the 2023-24 team as his last good shot at making the Final Four. 

As for Harper, one has to wonder just how much the UT athletic department cares about women’s basketball, which does not turn a profit. It’s hard to expect Tennessee athletic director Danny White to feel the Lady Vol nostalgia considering he wasn’t even 30-years old when Summit won her last national championship in 2008. If White decides to replace Harper, numbers will be a factor, but maybe not the numbers you’d prefer.

There’s a strong argument to be made that Harper’s languishing Lady Vols should just be left alone. Attendance is still high. Harper, compared to coaches at other elite programs, isn’t getting paid very much. Would White really dole out extra cash to a non-revenue sport when football is always thirsty? He’d likely have to do so in order to turn the Lady Vols around. 

There are a few coaches that would fit the bill, like LSU’s Kim Mulkey, who makes over $3-million annually. That’s getting a little too close to football numbers. Moreover, it’s doubtful that an elite coach like Mulkey would leave their current school for a job that is more about nostalgia than natties – and perhaps that’s the way it should be.

Until White, with Heupel or not, proves he can win a championship in football or men’s basketball, with Barnes or not, why even mess with the Lady Vols? Why spend one more dollar on a program that is never going to return any sort of investment? At least that seems to be the way White is thinking if he doesn’t have Harper on the hottest of seats.

It may be time to come to a new realization. The Lady Vols aren’t going to be relevant nationally until the Vols become a powerhouse on the football field. Remember Mulkey at LSU? She was hired in 2021, which just happened to be two years after the Tigers won a national championship in football. The coffers were full. It was time to help out the women, well, because Title IX basically says you have to.

Summit’s rise to legacy status came during a different sort of football renaissance at Tennessee. Summit became the Lady Vols head coach in 1974. That was good timing. As she built the program up, the Vols hired away a national championship winning coach, former Vol Johnny Majors, from Pittsburgh in 1977 and boosters were ready to spend. So when Summit got her team to a championship level and needed a financial boost in an area or two, the cash was often available.

It’s been said that it’s time for White to rid himself of Harper, that it’s practically sacrilege to allow a once dominant program to be so pitiful. However, it’s important to note that women’s basketball, for the vast majority of schools, is a luxury and not very high on the championship to-do list.

If White doesn’t fire Harper following this season, don’t be surprised. He has bigger fish to fry. Or, considering he wasn’t raised alongside the Lady Vols, he might just not care.

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One Response

  1. Dave, if you’re going to trash the Lady Vols and their coach, at least have the decency to spell Summitt correctly.

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