March 25, 2024 

NC State vs. Tennessee is a reluctant battle of old friends Wes Moore, Kellie and Jon Harper

'We've avoided playing each other in the regular season'

RALEIGH, NC — In 2001, then-Chattanooga head coach Wes Moore wanted to hire a 24-year-old Auburn assistant named Kellie Harper. Harper was just two years removed from three national championships at Tennessee, where Moore has two degrees himself. Moore was willing to do anything to convince Harper to join him, including bribing her husband with a job.

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“I was trying to hire Kellie away from Auburn but didn’t have the money to match it up. So then I said, ‘What I if I hired Jon as the third assistant?,’” Moore said after NC State’s first round win. “Jon didn’t make much money, but he had two responsibilities: go to lunch with me every day and play golf anytime I wanted to. So it was a pretty good job.”

Jon, who was at the time working at a golf course, says he’s the better golfer. He thinks Moore would agree.

“As bad as he wanted Kellie, he wasn’t going to just do it. So he did the background check and went, ‘sounds like Jon checks out,’” Jon Harper told The Next. “He always tells me, ‘I saved you.’ I was playing golf six days a week. Please explain to me how you saved me.”

Now, 23 years after the Harper’s original hiring, the two families meet again but on different sides of the court. On Monday at 4 p.m. ET in the second round, now Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper and her assistant coach/husband Jon Harper will coach against now NC State head coach Wes Moore. This is their first official NCAA Tournament matchup.

The night the Vols arrived in Raleigh, Moore picked Jon up and took him to Yard House, a local sports bar. Moore says he cheered on the Wolfpack men while Jon ate. The tradition of meals runs deep.

“[Moore] loves lunch — no salad dressing, extra cheese on his salad, unsweet tea,” Kellie joked to media on Sunday. “He’s going to change his order 30 times. You hate it for the waitress. Wes is always complaining about something in a great way that only Wes can do.”

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Golf and gambling

Nowadays, with the old friends Wes and Jon living across state lines, one of their only opportunities to break bread is an annual August guys trip to Vegas. The tradition started over twenty years ago as a reset after summer recruiting and before the school year started.

“Jon and I still go to Vegas with a bunch of guys for a week every August, and he probably wins and loses a whole lot more than I even take out there with me,” Moore told media. “[Jon and Kellie] have got an agreement they don’t talk about his gambling unless he either wins or loses a million dollars. So far he hasn’t had to tell Kellie much.”

When asked who’s the better gambler, Jon replies: “We’re both bad at that.” He confirmed the million-dollar arrangement. But the trips have gotten more mellow as they age. These days it’s about cherishing old friends and long dinners — but there’s still plenty of golf and gambling.

During The Next’s interview with Jon, a gaggle of people walked into the basement hallway adjacent to the Vols’ locker room. They immediately approached Jon. It was the Wes’ wife Linda, his niece, family friends and more. They embraced Jon mid-interview.

The old friends reminisced about a seemingly infamous story of when “the dog jumped in the bed with Kellie,” how precious the Harper’s ten and 5-year-old kids are and an apparent roast of Wes the Harper’s did in Tennessee.

“Go get us some secrets,” Jon yelled at the Moore gaggle as they scampered up the stairs to watch NC State’s practice.

Riding shotgun

And although Kellie doesn’t golf or gamble as much as her husband, she’s got a similarly tight-knit relationship with her former boss. They first met when Moore was an assistant at NC State and tried to recruit Kellie out of high school. Little did he know that Kellie would take the head coaching job at NC State in 2009, and he would then replace her in 2013.

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The two’s bond is best illustrated by the fact that they both unpromptedly, just twenty minutes apart in separate press conferences, told the same exact story about their time in Chattanooga.

“Wes also doesn’t like to pay full price for a lot of things. So when I first started working with him at Chattanooga, I was under 25. So you can’t rent a car without extra fees under 25. So he was not going to let me rent a car to go recruiting,” Kellie said.

“There was a lot of times where I drove and she navigated,” Moore said.

“Which typically doesn’t happen. For assistant coaches you don’t usually do that. But we were in Orlando, and this is prior to GPS, prior to cell phones. So we were reading maps,” Kellie said.

“We would just about have passed the road, and she’d go, ‘Oh, we’re supposed to turn right there!’ I would just whip it and turn right. She said, ‘We’re made for each other in this deal,’” Moore said.

After the press conference, in the hallway of Reynolds Coliseum, Kellie asked The Next if Moore really told the same story but joked he probably didn’t include the detail on his “cheapness.”

Avoiding Monday

But now, the three best friends approach the same court for the first time since the Harper’s departed Western Carolina, where they went after Chatanooga. And these coaches are human, so they all lamented about how challenging Monday’s matchup is.

“Kellie and I, we’ve avoided playing each other in the regular season game. We scrimmage each other often in the fall,” Moore explained. “I hate it … We’ve been fortunate to dodge it as long as we have. It’s going to be a great challenge because they’re very, very talented.”

According to Jon, the moments on the hardwood are the easiest. It’s easy to want to win in the moment, but everything surrounding those forty minutes hurts. Because no matter what, someone will leave the game upset. And although they can’t escape the No. 3 Wolfpack vs. the No. 6 Vols test, they can hope for a more ideal future.

“Inevitably, we both pull for each other. The ultimate goal would be let’s play for the national championship,” Jon Harper said.

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Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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