Jennifer Sullivan immediately sensed a change in the atmosphere whenever a member of the Tennessee women’s basketball staff walked into a gym.
First as a player and then as a coach, Sullivan noticed how the orange and white apparel and Lady Vols logo carried an aura of respect on the recruiting trail.
Sullivan has gained a new perspective on the phenomenon during the last two months.
“Now I am walking into gyms representing Tennessee. It is kind of surreal being on the road and imagining people feel the same way about what Tennessee represents,” says Sullivan, who joined the Lady Vols staff as assistant to new head coach Kellie Harper in April.
“I don’t know if you ever get used to that. It’s a neat thing and really has taken me aback and humbled me greatly.”
Sullivan and Harper were first introduced by a mutual friend at the 2012 Final Four in New Orleans.
Sullivan spent five seasons on Harper’s staff at Missouri State before moving to Ohio State last season to get some Power Five conference coaching experience.
“It was really hard to leave her and go to Ohio State. I am not going to lie. But once Kellie got this job and called me to ask if wanted to come, it was a no brainer,” Sullivan adds. “I get to work with someone I admire and enjoy working for and do it at one of the best women’s basketball programs in the country.”
A native of Jonesboro, Arkansas, Sullivan played collegiately at Memphis 2001-05. She was a three-year starter, earning team MVP honors as a senior. Her intensity and work ethic made an impression on everyone in the Memphis program.
“She had a focus and determination to be great and she practiced that way every day and played that way every game,” explains Joye Lee-McNelis, who coached Sullivan at Memphis and is now the head coach at Southern Miss. “It was really fun to watch her growth as a player. She had to understand everybody was not like her and that was OK.
“She is different and that is truly what makes her extra special.”
Sullivan’s interest in entering the coaching profession surfaced during her junior year at Memphis.
“I wanted to be a lawyer entering college. It’s hilarious now looking back on that. I got into school and knew right away I didn’t want to stay in school for eight years,” says Sullivan, who graduated with a degree in communications. “But I thought I wanted to maybe teach at a high school or something like that.”
Sullivan took a job as an assistant at Rhodes College right after graduation and says she realized college coaching was her calling.
“I had a lot of assistants that made a big impact on my life and I wanted to do the same,” Sullivan recalls. “I enjoy getting to know people. There is never a dull moment with this job. I get to hear people’s stories and go into homes of different families and see the different dynamics. It’s really fun and rewarding.”
Sullivan is one of five children, with an older sister and three younger brothers. Her father, Milton Sullivan, was the first African-American to play basketball at Arkansas State.
“I don’t know when it registered with us what that really meant. I heard about it, but it took a while before I realized the significance,” Sullivan says.
“I ended up working at Arkansas State, and walking the hallways and seeing my dad’s picture as the first was just overwhelming honestly. Knowing all he went through, and how proud he was to be there.”
Sullivan’s mother, Addie, was a teacher and the person Sullivan considers her biggest inspiration in life because of her selflessness and compassion. She died eight years ago from cancer.
“Both of my parents taught us about hard work. We are blue-collar people, and they showed us how to show up every day and work hard,” Sullivan says. “They sent all five children off to college, which is nearly unheard of and very difficult to do with a middle-class family. But there was no question we were going to college. They wanted us to just go and be the best we could be because of the legacy they put inside us.”
Kenzie Kostas played at Missouri State when Sullivan was an assistant. The all-conference guard admired her intelligence for the game and her high energy.
“Every practice, every game, every workout, it was going to be intense and she expected that from her players as well,” Kostas remembers. “That is something that made her really special on our staff. I loved playing for her and being around her on a daily basis.”
Kostas is entering her third year as an assistant coach at the University of Central Missouri, and still leans on Sullivan for advice.
“She is someone I can call in a heartbeat if I ever need anything now in the coaching world or my personal life,” Kostas says. “I got to spend this year at the Final Four with her and talk to her throughout at different recruiting events during the summer. It’s been really cool to go from the player-coach to a coach-friend relationship.”
Once Sullivan joined the Tennessee staff, she endured a little razzing from her friends, teammates and coaches at Memphis.
“My children both called and said. ‘Mom, she went to the dark side,’” Lee-McNelis says with a laugh. “But we are all just really so proud of her and excited for her. We can’t wait to see what they can do at Tennessee.”
Sullivan has grown more comfortable wearing the orange and white and extolling the virtues of the tradition-rich program. The sense of awe or intimidation she used to feel when a Tennessee assistant entered the gym has now become a huge benefit on the recruiting trail.
“I grew up a big fan of the Lady Vols and Pat Summitt and the things that took place here.” Sullivan says.
“I joked that I wanted to play here, they just didn’t take me.”