UC hires national champ as new women's basketball coach
by John Bach
Jamelle Elliott knows her way around the White House. Or at least she should. She's been there as the guest of presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
After six NCAA national championships with the University of Connecticut -- one as a player and five as an assistant coach -- the Bearcats' new head women's basketball coach has seen firsthand what it takes to merit an invite to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. For Elliott, success has followed her determined work ethic.
"We are going to make this thing work," Elliott says. "It is going to take some time, but I know the resources and people are in place. There is no reason UC can't be mentioned with some of the best teams in the Big East."
Elliott was hired to replace J. Kelley Hall in 2009 after his two losing seasons and a 3-13 mark in the Big East last year. She is UC's eighth head basketball coach and the third in four years.
"Jamelle is one of the rising coaching stars in women's basketball," says UC's director of athletics Mike Thomas. "We were looking for a snapshot of success. I'd say she has a scrapbook of success."
Prior to coming to UC, Elliott spent four years playing for and 12 years assisting UConn's Hall of Fame head coach Geno Auriemma. In her time as an assistant, the Huskies were 402-36 with five NCAA titles and 10 Big East regular-season championships. To show support for his former assistant, Auriemma flew to Cincinnati to be present for Elliott's May 5 press conference. His message to reporters was simple -- that Elliott is well prepared for the UC assignment.
"She's seen every aspect there is to see," says Auriemma. "She has been a part of (Connecticut basketball) when it was not good, when it was great and when it was really great."
UConn's loss, he says, will be Cincinnati's gain. "Most championships are won on signing day. She is as good a recruiter as I've ever seen. That is the key to everything. She will get players. She makes people feel comfortable. She draws you into her sphere of influence."
Leaving a program like UConn, Elliott admits, was a difficult decision.
"I could have stayed there 20 years and been absolutely content," says Elliott, who completed her bachelor's in business and her master's in sports management at Connecticut. "But I wanted something bigger. I've always had the dream and desire of becoming a head coach and running my own program. I wasn't just going to leave there to go to any school. It had to be the right school."
What made the Bearcats the right fit?
"A lot of people call it a gut feeling or intuition, but when I came here to visit and spent time with Mike Thomas and the rest of the athletics department, I just felt comfortable. I could see myself being here and being successful."
Elliott will measure her program's success in wins, but she'll also gauge victories based upon how her players approach the game, their studies and their community. "I want my players to play hard every single minute of practice and games," she explains. "We are going to compete. We are going to be fundamentally sound, smart and prepared.
"It is not just about basketball. I want my players to be well-rounded individuals who will not only make the program proud, but also Cincinnati, their parents and everyone they represent."
Her drive, she says, stems from her childhood background. Elliott is the first to admit her life has been a rather unlikely odyssey that started in the inner city of Washington, D.C. Though she grew up in the distant shadows of the White House, meeting a president was never on the radar for young Jamelle. Like poor kids in major cities across the country, she watched her neighborhood fall to pieces in the '80s as crack cocaine use hit epidemic levels.
"I think I owe my life to basketball," she says. "Several people that I grew up with either became pregnant, addicted to drugs or led a life of crime. Basketball was an outlet. It allowed me to stay off the streets."
Elliott didn't have much growing up, but she did have a caring family. "I grew up with both my mom and dad in the house, which was a rarity," she says.
"There were murders and drug dealers and things like that. My environment was poor, but when I was in my home, I felt like I was part of any other normal loving family. I think the things I witnessed have prepared me and have allowed me to continue to be humble. It made me the person I am today."
Her gritty upbringing, she says, has continually motivated her to push herself. What she lacked in skill, she made up for in effort. Elliott's work ethic in high school, as a scholar athlete named to the Washington Post All-Metro Team and one who helped her team win consecutive state championships, caught the attention of UConn's Auriemma. Though just under 5 feet 10 inches tall, she became only the second player in UConn history to surpass the 1,000-point and 1,000-rebound milestones. Incredibly, she never missed a single game or practice during her four collegiate years, and she was a key member of the 1995 NCAA national championship team that finished undefeated with 35 wins.
Elliott describes her playing style as "blue collar." She was one who took more pride in grabbing a rebound or setting a screen than making a basket.
"I like to say that I was the glue that kept the team together," she says. "Every team needs somebody who doesn't need the limelight. That was me."
Elliott's ambition these days is to continue to be a role model for young people back home, in Connecticut and now in Cincinnati. At UC, she inherits a team that finished at the bottom of the Big East Conference, and she looks forward to the challenge of putting her stamp on the program and moving it toward the league's top tier.
"That's my competitiveness coming out," she laughs. "I'm excited. We are going to get better every year. That's my goal. It is going to be fun."
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