Thursday, April 18, 2024

William & Mary Alum and Former USWNT Coach Headed to Virginia Sports Hall of Fame

Jill Ellis will be inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 2024. (Jill Ellis)

WILLIAMSBURG — Jill Ellis started playing soccer at the age of 15, but never saw it as a career choice. Her family moved to the U.S. when she was in her teens, and Ellis began playing for the Braddock Road Bluebelles soccer team and fell in love with the game.

Knowing she wanted to go to college, she began eyeing different schools where she might be able to attend.

“Nobody in my family had been to university before, I was a first-generation college athlete. As a family, we were trying to understand the process. My club team traveled to all different universities to play matches, it was my first experience of seeing a college campus. I knew I wanted to go to college, I just really didn’t understand the recruitment process,” Ellis recalls.

Ellis had sights on Cornell and Brown but found a home in Williamsburg at William & Mary. Committing on an athletic scholarship, she was a staunch competitor who helped take the Tribe women’s soccer program to new heights.

“Two of my teammates were going to William & Mary. I remember saying to my parents ‘I’m going to go there.’ My father had done some research on the school and knew it was a good school but it really was a comfort level of going somewhere where I thought I could get a great playing experience, combined with a fantastic education. It was the perfect fit,” Ellis said.

As part of the Tribe women’s soccer team, Ellis played forward from 1984-87. She was named an All-American and during her four seasons on the field, Ellis scored 32 goals. After graduating with a degree in English and working in the corporate world for a few years, a call came that would change the trajectory of her life.

A young Jill Ellis suits up for the Tribe. (Jill Ellis)

“I went to NC State to be a graduate assistant and pursue a degree there. After I had finished my coursework, I went into the business world for a couple of years and I had this realization of ‘is this really going to be my life, doing office work and working 9 to 5?’. I got a phone call from one of the assistant coaches at William & Mary that she had taken a job as the head coach at the University of Maryland, and she had called to ask if I would consider being her second assistant coach. It was a lot less pay than I was making and it was certainly a departure from my career path, but I like to say that I chose passion over paycheck and took the job,” Ellis said.

She may have been making $6,000 a year at the University of Maryland, but Ellis knew within months that coaching was where her life would take her.

Her NCAA coaching career has taken her to NC State University, the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia as an assistant coach, and the University of Illinois and UCLA as a head coach. After leaving the NCAA world, Ellis took over head coaching duties for the United States under-21 national teams.

“I fell in love with coaching the international game. I love working with young people, I love this sport, I love the process of getting to know people and helping them on their journey,” Ellis said.

It was while coaching the under-21 teams that the opportunity arose to apply to be the head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team.

“I remember saying to them, ‘I’ll go through the process and if I’m your person, great. If not, here’s to really good candidates.’ As I came through the process, I realized how much I really wanted the job, felt like I could help grow the game, and I interviewed,” Ellis said.

In France at the 2019 Women’s FIFA World Cup. (Jill Ellis)

In 2014, Ellis was officially named the head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team. During her tenure, there were many moments that stood out as special.

“It was a huge privilege to represent your home country and work with such high-level players and staff is a true honor. The job also came with high expectations, I didn’t go into it blind, I knew there were very high standards on my shoulders. I took the approach that I was going to work hard to try and leave the program in a better place than I found it,” Ellis said.

While the head coach of the national team, Ellis was named 2015 FIFA World Coach of the Year, led the team to a 2016 Summer Olympics berth, and helped secure back-to-back World Cup titles. She stepped down from the head coach position in July 2019.

Now club president for the San Diego Wave, a professional National Women’s Soccer League women’s soccer club in California, Ellis is passionate about continuing to grow the game both on the field and in business operations.

“I got this request to speak to a man named Ron Burkle who was interested in buying a men’s and women’s soccer team and he was looking for me to consult. When I heard his vision and I sat there with him, I was looking for my ‘what’s next?’ I thought to myself that this was an opportunity to help bring change. You constantly hear that things don’t change until we get more women in C-suite positions or positions of decision-making. I saw this as an opportunity to lead an organization. I said to him, ‘you know Ron? I don’t want to just consult, I want to run the whole darn thing,’ and he kind of smiled at me. I left and he wrote me a letter that said ‘that was a bold ask, here’s a bold offer, let’s do this,'” Ellis said.

On the sidelines with Wave FC. (Jill Ellis)

The Wave’s first season was in 2022. In 2023, the Wave won the NWSL Shield, a trophy given by the league each season to the team with the best record.

Throughout her career, Ellis has won multiple titles. In 1988, she was an assistant coach at NC State where the Wolfpack earned the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) title. As head coach of the UCLA Bruins, she was named 2000 National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) National Coach of the Year. She also coached the Bruins to six straight PAC-10 Conference titles. She also holds a United States Soccer Federation (USSF) pro coaching license.

In 2024, Ellis will be inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, an honor she said she is humbled by.

“You go into things because you are pursuing a passion or you are trying to make a difference. You are following a thread that you don’t really think about awards and honors. When you achieve milestones like this, it’s the time where you can reflect on the whole entirety of the journey. From being a 15-year-old landing in Virginia to someday being in the state’s hall of fame, it’s a cool story that I hope inspires others to follow their dreams and see what happens for them. I always just followed my passion and served the game I love, and this is a wonderful honor,” Ellis said.

Ellis will be honored during the Hall of Fame weekend ceremonies scheduled for April 19-20. Induction weekend information can be found on the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame website.

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