Brittney Ezell had a good thing going as the third-year Belmont women’s basketball coach, but she couldn’t resist the temptation to rebuild the program at East Tennessee State.
Ezell was introduced Wednesday as the new head coach of the Lady Bucs. It’s the fourth move up the professional ladder for the 37-year-old Franklin native, who once was a two-sport college star at Alabama.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been more nervous or excited to stand in front of such a great group of supporters and such a large group of media,” Ezell said from the podium at a crowded news conference in the Ward Room. “If I’ve learned anything in my career as a coach, as a player, it’s that you under-promise and over-deliver. So I’m not going to stand up in front of you and give you a lot of promises about what we’re going do or who we’re going to be.
“But I will tell you this: We will work tirelessly to restore this program to the championship level that Johnson City expects, that this great university expects.”
Ezell said she was convinced to come to ETSU after talking with president Brian Noland and interim athletic director Richard Sander, who ultimately made the call on her hiring.
“As a young coach, to be around Dr. Sander, who helped develop the careers of Jeff Capel, Anthony Grant and Shaka Smart (at Virginia Commonwealth), that was very persuasive,” she said. “And Dr. Noland, he’s a 44-year-old president with great vision and energy. That was also very attractive.”
Sander said the criteria for hiring ETSU’s new coach was fairly ambitious.
He wanted someone who has competed at the highest level in college; has a passion for their work; has a familiarity with instate recruiting networks, and would be a strong ambassador for the program and university.
It took almost six weeks to identify that coach, and Ezell was it.
“The more we looked at it, one person just kept jumping ahead of the others,” said Sander. “It became evident that Brittney is the right person for our job.”
Ezell succeeds Karen Kemp, who resigned in March after 19 seasons as coach.
The Lady Bucs won three straight Atlantic Sun Conference championships from 2008-10 but have struggled through back-to-back eight-win seasons. They went 6-12 in the A-Sun last season and finished eighth.
Cara Bowling was among four players who attended Wednesday’s gathering in the Dome. The sophomore guard from Elizabethton said the coaching change “wasn’t a big shock,” and she looks forward to playing for Ezell.
“I talked to her one-on-one last week, and the big thing that stuck out to me was that she cares about us as players and individuals,” said Bowling. “I think she’s going to bring a lot more leadership and discipline to the program.
“One of the biggest things our team has lacked is discipline, on and off the court.”
Ezell’s teams likely won’t be as freewheeling as some of Kemp’s were, and the players seem to understand that.
“There are going to be changes,” said junior guard Shawn Randall. “We’ve been a run-and-gun team, and she likes defense. Defense wins games.”
Ezell was a four-year starter at point guard at Alabama, where she scored 1,022 points and still ranks second in school history in assists (620) and games started (114). The Crimson Tide fashioned a 95-34 record over that time and made four straight Sweet 16 appearances.
She also started at third base for the Alabama softball team that won a Southeastern Conference championship in 1998, becoming the first two-sport female athlete at the school in over a decade.
Defense has been a constant theme throughout Ezell’s days on the basketball court.
“I think as a 5-5 point guard, I knew if I didn’t defend, I wasn’t going to play,” she said. “Defense is about team chemistry and sacrifice, and I like to build with that approach in mind.”
There haven’t been many early indications of how many players, if any, might transfer. The team graduated only one senior, center Tosha Austin.
Ezell is just starting to get a feel for the roster she inherited.
“We’ve been having meetings, and I’m getting to know them. I know they’re eager,” she said. “I’ve encouraged all of them to stay, but there may be some changes.”
The new coach is playing catch-up on recruiting –- the end of the national signing period is fast approaching – and is also busy trying to assemble a staff. The application process began late last week.
Damon Johnson and Brooke Wilhoit, former Kemp assistants, were among those in attendance Wednesday.
“When you get a new job like this, your phone starts ringing,” said Ezell. “I’m looking at everybody.”
Ezell began her coaching career at her alma mater, where she spent five seasons as assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. She went on to become a head coach in the state at Montevallo for two seasons before moving on to Northwest Florida State for three.
She took over at Belmont in 2010 and went 41-52 in her three years there, including 18-14 last season, which left her overall record as a head coach at 120-113.
And now the journey continues.
“This is not a bad move for me from Franklin,” she said. “I couldn’t pick a more beautiful place, and I couldn’t pick a more exciting time to be part of the ETSU family.”