William & Mary’s Jill Ellis coaches USWNT to World Cup title, makes SI Cover

Jill Ellis SI

Jill Ellis always found a way to get it done as an All-American soccer player at William & Mary. Now, she’s finding ways for her team to get it done as coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team.

Ellis, a Class of 1988 graduate, led the American women to their first World Cup title since 1999. The U.S. women beat Japan, 5-2, on July 5 in Vancouver. Every USNWT team member is featured on their own Sports Illustrated cover, including Ellis.

Her former coach, John Daly, and ex-teammates O’Toole, Nancy Reinisch, and Julie Cunningham Shackford  have seen firsthand Ellis’ ability to create success for herself and for those around her.

Daly, who just completed his 29th season with the Tribe, described Ellis as a lanky player with a long stride — “like a gazelle.” He is fond of recalling a moment of personal brilliance that resulted in an Ellis goal against George Mason.

“She got a ball at the halfway line and used the sole of her foot to pull the ball back and push it past the opposing player,” he recalled. “Then she accelerated towards goal and cracked the ball into the top corner. It was spectacular.”

There were enough such moments that Ellis graduated as the all-time leading scorer in Tribe women’s soccer history, a mark that has since been eclipsed.

Jill Ellis, left, and friends. (Courtesy Tribe Athletics)

While impressed with Ellis’ skill, O’Toole recalled her cerebral approach to the game. They played on the left side together, which lent itself to many helpful conversations.

“Jill was this very unique player who had the ability to coach her teammates in a way that people listened to her,” O’Toole said. “During the game she’d say, ‘Nance, why don’t you try X, Y or Z,’ and I’d do it. You respected what she had to say. She just has a very special way of communicating, which was apparent to me back then.

“Jill also had knowledge of the game unlike any player I knew. She just really has an uncanny understanding of the tactics and strategy of the game. It certainly came from her being on soccer fields with her dad growing up.”

John Ellis, a former commando in the British Royal Marine Corps, spent his career promoting soccer as a player and a coach of English club teams. He gained the reputation for mentoring some of the top female soccer minds in the United States.

After moving the family from England to Virginia in 1980, John Ellis founded a camp and instruction company called Soccer Academy, Inc. Now retired, the company is run by his son, Paul.

“She was always passionate about soccer,” Daly said. “It was in her blood.”

Shackford, who played for John Ellis in Northern Virginia, told USA Today that John “just has an aura about him. He has a twinkle in his eye, a spring in his step, and he endears people to him.”

Recently retired as Princeton’s women’s soccer coach, Shackford called Jill Ellis “my best friend,” and said she sees a lot of her father’s traits in her fellow alumna.

“Her father was an amazing leader, a very charismatic leader, and she has a lot of him in her,” said Shackford. “I think she always had (the ability to be an elite coach) in her, but it’s been an evolution.

“She’s grown into her role. She was pretty reserved (in college) … She was always a leader by how she played and was really easy to relate to. She always had good ideas, but she wasn’t like a (Kentucky basketball coach) John Calipari-type of personality.”

That evolution involved stints at Illinois and UCLA, where she led teams to the NCAA Final Four eight times.

“She’s shown herself to be a very sophisticated coach,” Daly said. “She’s put her time in as an assistant at N.C. State, Maryland, Virginia, as a head coach, as an international assistant and as a head coach. She’s learned from every coach she’s ever worked with.”

Daly and Shackford are nonplussed by the criticism Ellis and her strategy have received from what Daly called “supposed experts.” Shackford even wondered whether the same criticism would be leveled against a male coach.

“I think it’s a little unfair, some of the criticism,” she said. “But she was smart enough to know she was walking into that.”

“They say we’re not technical, that we don’t play pretty,” Daly said. “There’s more than one way to play, same as in American football. In football, you’ve got a running team and a passing team. If the passing doesn’t work — and you can’t run it — you’re probably going to lose. And if your running doesn’t work — and you can’t pass it — you’re probably going to lose.

“What I love about the way Jill has the team going is she has a mix (of styles) … To me, that is the mark of a good coach.”

Story by Jim Ducibella, William & Mary University Relations
Above: U.S. women’s soccer coach Jill Ellis celebrates with USA supporters after their victory over Japan in Sunday night’s Women’s World Cup at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, Canada.  (Photo by Steve Bardens-FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)