N.C. State athletics director Lee Fowler had a major decision to make last season following the death of long-time women's basketball coach Kay Yow in January.
The Hall of Famer's 22-year struggle with breast cancer sparked a national crusade of people wearing pink to support the eradication of the disease. And a sharp focus was on her team as Yow went through her final days with veteran assistant coach Stephanie Glance at the head of the operation.
Following Yow's death there was pressure from the program's supporters to give the job to Glance, who had pressed on with admirable class and dignity through the campaign.
But Fowler decided to go with an entirely new look atop the program. Last season was courageous and inspirational and admirable, but what was missing was the fun.
Furthermore, State had slipped to a clear No. 3 among the Triangle's ACC women's teams over the previous five years. While UNC had averaged 31.6 wins and Duke 29.2, with each playing in all five NCAA tournaments over the span, the Wolfpack averaged 19.8 with three NCAA appearances, one in the 2008 WNIT and nothing in 2009.
Enter Kellie Harper, who as Kellie Jolly won three NCAA titles as a guard for Pat Summitt's Tennessee teams from 1996-98 and was head coach at Western Carolina for five seasons before becoming the head of the Wolfpack.
"This marks the beginning of an exciting new era for Wolfpack women's basketball," Fowler said of Harper's hiring on April 16. "Our beloved Kay Yow built a program with rich tradition, and I believe that Kellie Harper is the person to build on that legacy."
Harper had already had good success at WCU, going 97-65, and with her pedigree felt she didn't need to take an intermediate step between her job in Cullowhee and a position with a big-time national program.
"I had opportunities to take other positions in the last five years, but my goal as a coach is to get back to the Final Four," said Harper, whose husband, Jon, is her right-hand man as a now-unpaid volunteer assistant. "I did not want to make a jump to a school where a Final Four would be a stretch. I wanted to go to a school where I felt like it was a realistic goal of that program. N.C. State has been to the Final Four (in 1998), there is rich tradition and history here, it's in a great conference and I felt like we could do that here."
Her team has gotten off to a solid start this season, winning five of its first seven games, including a big road victory at Old Dominion. The first loss was at home to America East Conference power Vermont in the title game of the Sheraton Raleigh Wolfpack Invitational, while the second was a six-point defeat on the road to No. 16 Vanderbilt.
At 32, Harper takes a big-sister role with her players instead of being team mama. Young, energetic and yes, photogenic, she couldn't be Kay Yow II, distinguished icon of the game. She had to do it her own way. She shows her players how to get it done in practice: fist bumps them at press conferences, joins in the giggles at an inside joke. When her players slip up and call her simply Kellie instead of Coach Kellie, nobody raises an eyebrow.
"She means a lot to me and the team," junior forward Tia Bell said. "The biggest statement she made 20 minutes before the press conference (in April) was, she said she knew she had big shoes to fill, but the best person she could be was herself. That meant a lot to me. She also told us she would teach us how to play basketball and the concepts and then let us play free with no restrictions. You can see we're out there with energy and intensity and having fun within her system, but with freedom as well."
Harper also has her own protégé in the making, a guard who has never played college basketball for anyone else. The previous staff had brought in only one recruit eligible to play immediately, and minutes after the hiring announcement last April, Harper was on the phone to Marissa Kastanek to make sure the prized recruit didn't suddenly decide to matriculate to a school closer to her home in Nebraska.
"As soon as she knew she was going to be the coach, she called me and introduced herself and made it real obvious that I was going to be comfortable here and I was going to be OK," Kastanek said. "My biggest worry was coming 20 hours away from home and not knowing anybody. I knew some of the players, but I didn't have a relationship with the players as I did with the previous coaching staff.
"She came out to Nebraska in her very busy schedule. She had press conferences like crazy and news media and meetings with these girls who were already here, but she came out one trip and again a second time. I knew [that] somebody who would be that committed to me, it would be easy to be that committed to her."
Added Harper, "I told Marissa I would have taken five more trips to get her to come to N.C. State."
The visits to Nebraska have paid off: Kastanek started all of the Wolfpack's first seven games and averaged 11.7 points, 2.0 assists and 3.7 rebounds.
It's obvious Harper has gained quick popularity with the Wolfpack's fans. She always goes onto the PA system to thank the crowd in Reynolds Coliseum, even after losses. She was grand marshal of the homecoming parade. And although she sheepishly admits she hasn't bought enough red yet, she's aware enough to know fans notice what she's wearing on the sidelines, and she likes it that way.
"Jon and I were in a fashion show, a Wake Med breast cancer fundraiser (the day before practice started on Oct. 15)," she said with a smile. "I got to be on the catwalk with my glamorous red gown and my stylish 'city' attire (from Saks Fifth Avenue). It was a lot of fun, and I'm so up for doing anything. That's just fun, right down my alley."