In many ways, Jill Ellis is just like other working moms with children at Coral Reef Elementary. She drops her fourth-grade daughter Lily off at school each morning and then scrambles to get as much work done as she can before mid-afternoon, when her focus returns to Lily and her activities — the latest being theater.
But unlike many of those parents, Ellis doesn’t head to an office to do her work. She returns to her Palmetto Bay home, taps into her vast soccer network, and keeps close tabs on the top female players in America. She watches and dissects endless video of women’s professional matches and the national women’s teams of Brazil, Germany, China, Norway and others.
And she travels. Quite a bit.
Ellis, who turns 48 on Saturday, is the recently-hired head coach of the U.S. Women’s World Cup team. Next summer, she will become a household name and a fixture on national TV as she tries to lead the Americans to their first World Cup title since 1999. The 2015 Women’s World Cup will be held June 6 to July 5 in Canada, and qualifying matches get under way next month. Her first training camp opens Friday in Salt Lake City.
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Unlike the U.S. men’s team, which would celebrate advancing to the quarterfinals, the women’s team is expected to vie for the World Cup title every four years. Anything less is considered a major disappointment.
“At the end of the day, I know that’s why I was hired, and our players understand this is the goal — to bring a world championship back to the United States,” Ellis said last week while taking an afternoon break at her local coffee shop.
“I’m excited about the opportunity. You go into it eyes wide open. Coaches understand that pressure is part of the rush of coaching, the challenge of trying to outplay your opponent is part of the fun, the adrenaline, the preparation, seeing your team evolve, it’s why coaches become coaches.”
HER TRUE CALLING
It is why, in 1994, Ellis gave up a $40,000-a-year job as a technical writer with Northern Telecom to take an assistant coaching job at the University of Maryland for $6,000 a year. She had majored in English literature at William and Mary, where she was a third-team All-American forward. She figured soccer had served its purpose, gotten her a scholarship, which led to a steady job writing users’ manuals.
But she missed the game terribly, and knew her true calling was coaching. When she told her parents of her plan, her mother, Margaret, “was horrified,” Ellis said. Her father, John, on the other hand, was delighted and encouraged her to take the plunge. He is a longtime British coach, a former U.S. national team assistant coach, and his passion for soccer rubbed off on his children — both of whom wound up in the profession.
“I could always sense that writing job wasn’t her style, and I told her that she should do what she really wants, and see where it takes her,” said John Ellis, now retired in Central Florida. “She had what it takes to be a great coach — really good field vision, great people skills, and a way of getting people to do things they may not be confident doing.”
John Ellis servedin the British Royal Marine Corps and coached military soccer teams for years. He went on to coach teams in Portsmouth, England, where Jill and her brother, Paul, were born and raised, and also did stints in Singapore and Trinidad and Tobago. Jill was always athletic, ran track, played field hockey, but organized soccer was off limits to girls in England.
“I grew up playing in the schoolyard with the boys, and on the side of the grounds my dad coached on,” she said. “I have a lot of fond memories. I grew up in a culture where [soccer] was part of the DNA over there.”
It wasn’t until the family moved to the United States in 1981 that Ellis, then 15, was able to pursue her favorite sport. They were living in Virginia, where her father mentored young American coaches at his new venture, Soccer Academy, Inc. She joined a club team, made the high school team, and headed off to college.
That Maryland assistant job led to another assistant job at Virginia, and then to the head-coaching job at the University of Illinois. From there, she went to UCLA, where her teams reached the Final Four eight times in 12 years, including seven in a row. She compiled a 229-45-14 record and was hired by the U.S. Soccer Federation to lead the U20 and U21 national teams.
She later became the U.S. director of player development, and was an assistant under Pia Sundhage at the 2011 World Cup. When Sundhage left for her native Sweden in 2012, Ellis was a natural candidate to replace her, but she let it be known she was not interested at the time.
She was tired of the frequent travel, and wanted to spend more time at home in Los Angeles with her partner, Betsy Stephenson, and their daughter, Lily, whom they adopted as a baby.
“I just needed to be in one place for a while, for my family, and myself,” she said, a hint of her British accent still intact. “I had been on the road for too many years.”
SETTLING IN MIAMI
But in December 2013, Stephenson, the former athletic director at Emory University, moved to Miami to take a job as Development Director for Sports Medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Ellis had visited Miami — and liked it — a few years earlier when she was invited to the birthday party of former UM soccer coach Tricia Taliaferro, who had trained under Ellis’ father and worked with Jill Ellis at Maryland and Illinois.
The plan was for Ellis and Lily to join Stephenson in Miami over the summer, but they wound up moving in April to get Lily acclimated to school. A month later, Ellis got a call from U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati, asking if she would consider replacing Tom Sermanni as national coach. He was an outsider from the Australian national team, and though well-liked, was not the right fit.
They wanted Ellis, who had coached almost all the U.S. players at some point, and fully understood the American system.
“Her experience coaching at many levels, youth, college, national team, and the respect she commands from players, all those things make her perfect for the job,” Gulati said. “We were ecstatic she was willing to be considered this time. She knows the psyche of our players from top to bottom. That’s a huge plus.”
The timing was right. Life in Miami was less hectic. Her parents are a drive away if she needs them in a pinch. Ellis happily accepted.
“Opportunity only knocks so many times,” Ellis said. “It’s easier to travel from the East coast. Living in Miami is a calmer pace, especially the area we live in. Lily’s like, ‘We don’t ever go on highways anymore.’ In L.A., there’s so much traffic, faster pace.
“I knew I wanted to live somewhere warm, close to the water, I liked the diversity of L.A., and it’s similar here. It seemed like a really good fit, all around. Plus, I was already a Heat fan, even though I lived in L.A. I always liked the Heat. So far, it’s been fantastic here.”