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Monday, Dec 11, 2023 | Latest Print Edition

Harris' rebuild bringing Auburn women's basketball back to prominence

<p>Nov. 21, 2021; Auburn head coach Johnnie Harris smiles during a game against Georgia Tech from McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta.</p>

Nov. 21, 2021; Auburn head coach Johnnie Harris smiles during a game against Georgia Tech from McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta.

During the heyday of the Auburn women’s basketball program in the 1980s and 1990s, few programs matched the level of consistency at which the Tigers played. Under longtime head coach Joe Ciampi, Auburn won four SEC titles and reached seven Sweet 16s, six Elite Eights and three Final Fours. 

As the Tigers enter the 20th season since Ciampi retired, third-year head coach Johnnie Harris is working to bring Auburn back to the level of success it once enjoyed. Harris, who came to Auburn prior to the 2021-22 season, understands the special chance she has to restore the Tigers back to prominence in the SEC and nationally.

“It was a big opportunity, knowing the history,” Harris said. “The history I knew started with Coach Ciampi and all his championships and playing for national championships, so I knew that this program had been successful in the past and I knew that it could get back there.”

Despite its proud history, the Auburn program had fallen on tough times. In the 12 seasons prior to Harris’ arrival, Auburn only qualified for the NCAA Tournament three times. In the 2020-21 season, the season prior to Harris’ hiring, the Tigers failed to win an SEC game. 

After she was hired on Apr. 3, 2021, Harris began a rebuild of the proud program. Among her first objectives were instilling a culture into her program and laying out her vision for her team. Additionally, Harris worked to add size to a roster that she noted was small when she first arrived.

“The first year was just coming in to see what I have, changing the culture because it’s really important to have a culture that’s bought into your vision,” Harris said. “My first year I had to go out and get SEC bodies... When you start from where we started, it’s hard to go out and get the All-Americans right away. You have to go out and get kids that want to compete against these All-Americans and I felt like we did that.”

Through Harris’ first two seasons, there were many signs of success to come. In year one under Harris, Auburn earned three top-25 wins over No. 18 Georgia Tech, No. 20 Georgia and No. 4 Tennessee. Those wins set the foundation for Harris’ program as the Tigers continued their improvement.

In just her second season, Harris led the Tigers back to postseason play as they hosted a WNIT game against Tulane before traveling to Clemson. It marked Auburn’s first selection into a postseason tournament since 2019.

“We beat some top teams, No. 4 in the country, No. 18 in the country, No. 20…, so we beat some teams that people probably thought we wouldn’t have and that gave us something to build on,” Harris said. “In year two, we have a winning record and we go to the WNIT and even win a game in the WNIT so I thought that was the next step.”

From the moment she was hired, Harris has shown an investment in Auburn’s other athletic programs. Harris, as well as her staff and players, can often be seen supporting Auburn’s other sports teams. Not only are Harris’Tigers providing support to Auburn’s other programs, but they are promoting their own team to the Auburn fanbase.

Whether it be showing up to cheer at the soccer games or giving out pizza to the students in line at men’s basketball on a cold December night, Harris and her team have encouraged several programs around campus as fan interest continues to rise. Likewise, other athletes have shown up at Neville Arena to cheer on Harris’ Tigers.

“If you want support, you’ve got to show support,” Harris said. “Just to go to other sporting events and supporting other coaches and other teams started out being important to us and it always has been and always will be. I always encourage my team, my coaches, to go out and support these other teams and we have been receiving support as well.”

Though Auburn was Harris’ first opportunity to run her own program, she had years of experience working under some legends of the game. For five seasons, she worked at Texas A&M under Hall of Famer Gary Blair. She spent nine seasons as Vic Schaefer’s associate head coach at Mississippi State and later at Texas.

Harris brought some of Blair and Schaefer’s philosophies to Auburn as she established her culture on the Plains.

“That’s where I learned tough, hard-nosed, physical, aggressive... I learned being prepared, all those important things it takes to build a program,” Harris said. “I learned how to go out and get into the community and make sure those people know that not only do we need your support, we’re going to get out there and we’re going to support you too.”

Though they were glad to participate in the WNIT in 2023, which marked a major step in the right direction for the program, Harris and the Tigers have bigger aspirations and expectations for the future.

“You never shoot to stop at the WNIT but we felt, at the very least, we would be able to get there… We weren’t happy about ending there but we were happy about getting there and being able to play a home game, and win a home game, in front of our crowd,” Harris said. “It had been a while since a postseason game had been won here, so all of that was just amazing.”

Now, as Harris enters her third season on the Plains, her culture has been established within the program and depth has been created throughout the roster. The Tigers are ready to compete in the tough SEC. As the Tigers get “better every day,” Harris expressed excitement about her third Auburn team — a group that has bought into Harris’ vision for the team.

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“Now I feel like we have some depth and we have experience at our depth, so we feel like anything can happen in the SEC,” Harris said. “I feel like once you build your culture, once you get in players who know what the expectation is, now you’re not coaching effort, you’re not coaching attitude — you’re coaching basketball and I feel like I’m finally able to do that.”

This article can also be found in our "Welcome Back" print edition, in stands now.

Matthew Wallace | Assistant Sports Editor

Matthew is a senior from Huntsville, Alabama, majoring in journalism. He started with The Plainsman in fall 2021.

Twitter: @mattwallaceAU

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