by Mike Potter
Such decisions are much easier in the world of pro sports.
If the coach didn’t win yesterday and probably won’t win tomorrow, he’s out. No matter how hard the team has played through injuries, no matter if everybody on the planet thinks a bad call took them out of the playoffs too early the year before, and no matter if he donated a kidney to the pre-teen daughter of a season-ticket holder in the off-season.
It’s easy to remove a coach who has had back-to-back 5-20 seasons, no matter how classy he or she is personally. And if nobody on the team has graduated in five years and the total number of lines on rap sheets is higher than Coach’s win total, then the axe should fall.
But when someone like Kellie Harper loses a job, as happened at N.C. State on Tuesday, it’s a rough day for just about everyone who has seen her in action.
A former coach at Western Carolina who as a player helped Tennessee win three NCAA titles, Harper came to the Wolfpack in the toughest of situations. She took over for the late Kay Yow under a little bit of controversy, as a good chunk of the fan base had wanted interim coach and long-time assistant Stephanie Glance to get the job.
And over her four-year tenure in Raleigh there were mixed results on the court. In her first season at the helm the Wolfpack — who always played well in the ACC Tournament during her reign — got all the way to the final and earned an at-large NCAA bid.
But unfortunately for those who wanted her around for a long time, that was State’s most recent NCAA trip.
A losing season the next year was followed by back-to-back WNIT bids and first-round victories in that consolation tournament.
Harper’s Wolfpack had a great work ethic and could usually flat play with anybody. But as for any State coach, a lot of the judgment is going to come from the raw record against Duke and UNC and she and her husband Jon — her top assistant — weren’t able to bring in carloads of superstars to compete with the nearby ACC superpowers.
Fairly or not, two wins over the Tar Heels and one over Duke in a four-year period won’t keep the wolves at bay.
And guess where the nation’s top two recruiting classes are headed this fall.
But despite the so-so 70-64 record, Harper’s teams were fun to watch. Charismatic, even. Especially at home, they always had a chance to win.
Combo guard and shooting sensation Marissa Kastanek was a natural leader for four years, and it’s perhaps bittersweetly apropos that the timeline of her Wolfpack career was exactly the same as Harper’s.
Kastanek has been an exquisite role model both on and off the court, as has particularly rising senior forward Kody Burke in particular. State was the only school in the country that had two players make academic All-America this season, Kastanek on the first team and Burke on the third.
And it’s not out of the realm of possibility that 15 years from now, Harper and Kastanek will be head coaches of Top 25 teams doing battle with each other somewhere.
Here’s hoping that the new Wolfpack coach will continue to bring in players of that personal caliber, and conduct the program with the same level of class and dignity that Kellie Harper did and Kay Yow did before her.
And if the win totals go up, that’s just gravy.