College sports is a world of many changes. College coaches get fired and hired every year around the time college ball starts and finishes. Coaches are there to lead their team to success or improvement, and if they fail to do so, their job is in jeopardy before the blink of an eye.
One college coach leaves a mark wherever she goes.
“All the programs I’ve taken over…if you go back and look at them… all of them had losing records, until we got there,” said ETSU Women’s Basketball Head Coach Brittney Ezell.
The 39-year-old Ezell comes from a town called Franklin, Tennessee.
“Franklin is a very affluent community,” said Ezell. “It was a great place to grow up, it had a big name but a very small town feel. There’s no streetlights on our road: we live in the country. There’s no neighbors for a quarter of a mile. I grew up a little isolated, but it was the best way to focus in on being an athlete and making sure that you took care of family first.”
Eddie and Denise Goodwin are Ezell’s parents. Ezell’s mother has been an educator since Brittney was born and her father Eddie is the president of a Fortune 500 company. Ezell first touched a basketball when she was 5 years old.
“At 5 I started playing in the neighborhood,” Ezell said. “At 6 my mom took me to the local rec center to sign up to play basketball, but there were no girls’ leagues. My mother said ‘no problem, I’ll coach boys!’… So I played in the boys league until we left there… we didn’t lose a game for two years.”
She didn’t stop there, as she continued to play rec ball until she was in middle school. Ezell played alongside Ron Mercer (Kentucky All-American), Brian Watkins (Maryland All-American), and Clark Humphreys (SEC champion pole-vaulter). She also picked up soccer and softball.
Ezell attended elementary school in Alabama, but came back to Franklin to further her education when she attended middle school at Page Middle School and after, went to Franklin High School. At Franklin High School Ezell was a three-time district MVP, she scored over 2,000 points and was in the top 30 in her class. With her mother being an educator, Ezell always made sure that her grades were not an issue.
“I took a lot of pride in it,” Ezell said. “It was important to our family …. It was important to me to be the right example for my brother.”
With letters of recruitment coming from almost every Division 1 school in the country, Brittney’s choice would be difficult. Ezell went on to choose the University of Alabama because of the relationship between her and the assistant coaches, and head coach. Alabama offered her the choice to play right away and how could a player full of passion say no?
“I played for one of the Godliest men I ever knew, outside my father, Rick Moody (head coach),” Ezell said. “As a point guard you always want to reflect your coach. He bonded really well with my mom and dad and that was very important to me. He also gave me a lot of freedom to be a leader. And that’s what I always wanted… to be able to help other people. When you’re a point guard that’s all you want to do is help. I didn’t want to score a lot of points, I just wanted us to win and he put me in a position to do that.”
Ezell was recruited by Sherri Smelser, who is the mother of John David Smelser, currently a graduate assistant for the women’s basketball team at ETSU. Ezell has known John David since he was 4.
“The number one thing that struck me about her was the way she played the game of basketball,” said Graduate Assistant John David Smelser. “If there is a ball on the floor… she’s on the floor. There’s no telling how many times she’s cut up her leg and continued to play through it. Relentless. That’s her character, that’s who she is. In my time here as an assistant, you see the same things in her. She really cares about the players, she cares about her staff, and she cares about the students that she walks by every day. Her heart is unbelievable toward people. She’s a winner and a fighter… and to me that’s awesome to work with!”
Ezell signed with Alabama in 1994, the year that Alabama made it to the Final Four the first and only time. Ezell started all four years. She led her team to four appearances in the NCAA Division 1 “Sweet Sixteen” and a phenomenal 93-34 record. She is ranked 20th in career scoring with 1,022 points. She also is second all-time in career assist (620) and games started (114).
Along with basketball, Ezell also played softball at Alabama. She came out of high school as a better softball player than basketball but she chose to continue perfecting her craft with basketball so she could stay close to family. Outside of athletics, Ezell was pretty busy around school. She earned a degree in business management and wanted to go on to law school. Ezell did not look into going pro or being a coach.
“It was something that found me,” said Ezell “It was something that could continue that outlet of helping. I think it was my calling… I just didn’t know. ”
Among the list of awards and accomplishments, Ezell was invited to the WNBA Rookie Combine in Chicago.
“I was there for about three days,” Ezell said. “I had the opportunity to play at Charlotte, for the Charlotte Sting or for Detroit at the time. Just being in there, I really realized it wasn’t going to be for me. I called Dad, and I was very candid with Mom and Dad. This wasn’t what I wanted for my life, I never dreamed of being a pro. I got there in a limo and I went home in a cab…. That’s how quick your life can change.”
Instead Ezell was offered a graduate assistant job at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and she took it. She also was a video coordinator. After leaving Nebraska, Ezell’s old coach Moody called her and offered her a job to become the assistant coach at the University of Alabama. Ezell accepted the position of assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for the team and stuck with it for five years. When the head coach retired, Ezell now knew it was her time to start her own journey.
“I loved my time as a GA,” Ezell said. “I use to sleep in my office. I use to have to have a milkshake on my head coach’s desk every morning by 10 a.m. because that’s what he wanted. I use to break down film before there was all of this video technology where you just click a button. I use to watch old VHS tapes and clip them. It was great for me… It really shapes your philosophy… There was a lot going on in those five years, but I grew up a lot.”
Ezell’s first head coaching position was at Okaloosa-Walton Junior College in Niceville, Florida, where she spent three seasons. Ezell led the team to a 57-28 record, had 12 athletes sign national letters of intent to Division 1 schools, and 12 Academic All-Conference honorees.
“I couldn’t look my mother in the face if I were cheating a kid out of their education or not pushing them to exceed academically,” said Ezell. “Can you do the work? Can you perform? Can you be persistent? Can you be consistent? And can you push through some obstacles? And a lot of those obstacles have to do with kids that don’t necessarily see the importance of education. You’ve got to have your education because that’s what you’re going to fall back on… and that’s important to me. It’s important because it’s the only thing that sustains you throughout your life,” said Ezell. “If you were to ask our current players how many points they average, nobody knows, but they have a degree that they can point to. Coaching is a impassion form of teaching. This is my classroom and I want them to perform in every classroom they have, so when they walk across that stage with the big smile across their face people will say ‘they overcame a lot, they went through a lot, they did a lot while they were here, but they got the most important thing, which is that degree.’ I take a lot more pride in how many kids I that have degrees these days, then how many games I’ve won.”
Ezell went to Montevallo to take on a new task as the head coach of a Division 2 school for the first time. Division 2 is different because the competition and pay are lower, but that wouldn’t stop Ezell from stepping up to the plate. Along with coaching the team, she taught classes, and also bartended at night to make enough money. She didn’t want to limit herself to entitlement so she went out to experience different levels in coaching, so in the future she can say she earned the position and it was not given.
She coached Montevallo for only two seasons, but in that small time frame Ezell led them to the first winning season in 12 years. After leaving Montevallo, Ezell headed to Belmont University. In the 2011-12 season Ezell led the team to 11 conference victories and league tournament No. 3 seed in the Atlantic Sun Conference campaign.
In the 2012-13 she got the team to the first postseason appearance since 2007 and many more accomplishments against teams in their conference and non-conference games also.
“It was fun,” said Ezell. It’s a tribute to the kids I coached, it’s a tribute to all the assistants I’ve had. All the programs I’ve taken over…if you go back and look at them… all of them had losing records, until we got there. For them to go back to the postseason with that group of kids meant the world to me because they’d gone through some losing…they suffered a little bit. Once people taste success they want more of it… The more you can baby step them to it, the more they want it.”
On May 8, 2013, Ezell came to East Tennessee State University. Since Ezell has been at East Tennessee, so has assistant coach Laura Barry. Barry had a couple interviews with Ezell over the phone and soon after they met in person, and next Barry was hired. They have now been working with each other for two years.
“She’s always putting others before herself,” Barry said. “I think that’s rubbed off on our team. The number one thing she teaches at practice is to be grateful for everything you have. And her other main saying is ‘You can control your effort and you can control your attitude, so that’s something you better bring everyday’ … She lives the same way she coaches, so she has her priorities in line, and carries them out in both sets.”
In her first season coaching, the team went 9-21 overall. With the season not going the way a coach would like to see it Ezell had to look forward to next season and see what needed to be done. In the next season Ezell brought the team to a tremendous 21-12 record.
With this incredible turnaround, the team is now in program history and also second best among all Division 1 schools.
“When you take over your first year there’s a lot of confusion,” said Ezell. “Everybody says they want change, but nobody wants to change… there’s a big difference. There was a process where they had to learn how to trust us, they had to learn our system, they had to learn what we believed to be important in terms of accountability, responsibility, how to behave and how to perform. Once these kids bought in to what we were trying to do… once they realized that all we wanted to do was help… and when they stopped fighting us and they started fighting with us and for us… we got to be really good!”
“We didn’t become a good team until our girls began to invest in being good teammates,” said Ezell. “Taking the ‘me’ out of the situation and really immersing themselves in the culture of ETSU. Understanding that they’re the front porch of the university. Athletics is what people see about a university and they took that seriously.”
“To be able to put people on the forefront like Serena Clark (senior forward), Destiny Mitchell (senior forward), Maria Bond (senior forward), and Cara Bowling (senior guard) means a lot. Those four seniors struggled and to have them reenergize the program… that energizes me. When you’re losing you’re still pouring everything you’ve got into it. And what fills you up is to see those kids get better every day. As a coach you begin to be a little bit of a fan: you pull for them, support them, love them and tell them the truth, even when it’s hard. You have to be their biggest fan, but also their biggest critic… you have to find that balance. Once they found that balance with us, we were really good.”
As Ezell’s second season with the Bucs ends, ETSU extended her contract through the 2018-19 season. She shows appreciation to the players, university, ETSU President Brian Noland, Athletics, and ETSU Athletics Director Dr. Richard Sander.
“If not for them, it’s easy to always say the grass is greener,” said Ezell. “But I’ve gotten to the point where I just want to water this grass. I like it here! I like the people here, this has become home to me. I and my family believe in ETSU…. and I believe in it deeply. I feel like there’s an energy on campus that hasn’t been here in a while… I think there’s a lot going on that’s really good. I think it’s good to have administration that sees that and promotes it. Most importantly, they care about our kids and that’s all you ever want… All you ever want is an administration and people that support and care about your kids.”