Jill Ellis' Coaching Career Began with a 'Leap of Faith'
For someone who did not have serious aspirations of becoming a coach in her younger days, Jill Ellis certainly pieced together an inspirational journey to coaching legend status.
Ellis is the first and only coach to direct a team to consecutive FIFA Women’s World Cup championships as the U.S. Women’s National Team captured the 2015 and 2019 titles. To find another soccer coach to match this feat, you have to go back almost a century when Vittorio Pozzo guided the Italian men to back-to-back crowns at the 1934 and 1938 World Cups.
When she stepped down in 2019, Ellis had compiled a 106-7-19 mark as the winningest USWNT head coach in history.
“In terms of legacy, you just want to think that the program you leave is in a better place,” she told USSoccer.com in 2019. “I stand on the shoulders of all those coaches that came before me, and you hope at some point you look at this program and you think it’s taken a step forward.”
For her accomplishments, Ellis will be inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Frisco, Texas, on May 6, 2023. She was elected on the Builder Ballot in her first year of eligibility — a lofty honor, considering that at one time, coaching wasn’t among her priorities.
“I never actually wanted to be a coach,” Ellis said during a 2017 interview with the BBC. “I went to college to play some football and get an education. I then went off on a different tangent and worked in the business world for a couple of years as a technical writer. I got a call to go and do an assistant [coaching] job at a university. I took a jump and a leap of faith.”
Fast forward a few decades, and she was the 2015 and 2019 FIFA World Women’s Coach of the Year and the 2015 CONCACAF Women’s Coach of the Year. She also has been inducted into the Virginia-DC Soccer Hall of Fame and the William & Mary Athletic Hall of Fame.
Born in Portsmouth, England, on Sept. 6, 1966, Ellis was destined to follow a path into soccer.
Her father, John, a former Royal Marine commando who coached soccer throughout the world on behalf of the English government, allowed her to embrace the beautiful game. He coached the Singapore National Team, worked with the Trinidad & Tobago national side and was an assistant coach for the USWNT in the early aughts.
“We just had a lot of exposure to a lot of different football around the world and growing up in England, it was everywhere,” Ellis told The 21st Show on Illinois Public Media earlier this year. “You can’t help but be entrenched in it.”
When she was younger, however, there weren’t any opportunities for girls or women in England to compete in the sport. That did not deter Ellis, who tagged along with her older brother Paul to a local park. If any of the boys needed a player to even out the sides, she played.
“Soccer was in my blood, but there were no formal opportunities for girls,” she told the Post. “Soccer was for the boys. So, I played with the boys.”
Ellis didn’t play regularly until her family moved to the U.S. in 1981. John Ellis worked for the Annandale Boys Club in Virginia before starting the Soccer Academy in Manassas.
His daughter captained the Robinson Second School of Fairfax, Va., to the 1984 Virginia high school championship. Ellis also was a member of the 1984 Braddock Road Bluebelles national championship side.
“It was the first time I put on a uniform,” Ellis told the Post. “I remember my coach asking me what position I played. I looked at her funny and said, ‘I don’t really know.’”
At William & Mary, she scored 32 goals in four seasons (1984-87) and earned Third Team All-American honors.
Ellis, whose family became naturalized U.S. citizens years ago, began her coaching career with a three-year stint as an assistant at North Carolina State University while she earned a master’s degree in technical writing. Then came three years at the University of Maryland and two seasons at the University of Virginia. Former USWNT head coach and Hall of Fame member April Heinrichs (1998) was the head coach at Maryland and Virginia then.
In 1997, Ellis decided it was time to challenge herself. She was named the first women’s coach at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“What immediately drew me to this opportunity was ... the chance to kind of build something from the ground up, but also the academic reputation of the university,” she told The 21st Show. “I felt I’m going to really have the opportunity to attract bright young women. At the time there were no professional leagues; not just to simply come and play soccer, but also to really get an education.”
Ellis coached the Fighting Illini to a 19-18 record and its first Big Ten tournament berth in her two years there before a great challenge at UCLA beckoned.
During her 12-year tenure leading the Bruins, Ellis directed UCLA to a 229-45-14 record. The team reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division I tournament every season and the NCAA College Cup on eight occasions. There were, however, no national championships.
At UCLA, Ellis also learned how to lose.
“Failure is a part of the journey. A valuable part of the journey,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2019. “So going to Final Fours and not winning the trophy, it made me a better coach. You grow so much.
“The cornerstone for success for me has been struggle and hardship.”
Ellis started to climb the U.S. Soccer ladder, guiding the Under-20 and Under-21 teams before taking on assistant coach responsibilities in 2008 and 2011-12. She was USWNT interim head coach in 2012 and 2014. Ellis became the team’s eighth coach in 2014 after Tom Sermanni was fired.
The USWNT coaching job always comes with great expectations, given that the Americans have won four world championships and four Olympic gold medals. Not reaching a final is considered a failure in many quarters and a huge disappointment.
“There is no doubt when you take this job, you know exactly what you are getting into,” she said at the time. “I’ve been historically connected to U.S. Soccer. I know the expectations. I know the players. It’s something you have to embrace, or you don’t take a job like this.”
When she was a young coach, Ellis met John Wooden, UCLA’s legendary basketball coach, and got a lesson in dealing with pressure.
“I asked him, ‘How did you deal with pressure?’” she said. “He said, ‘You embrace it.’ When I took this job, there is no gray area here. The expectation is there to have this team win a world championship. It’s liberating, really, because that’s what you’re shooting for.”
The U.S. won the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, vaulting Ellis in that exclusive club of two. The Americans had combined record of 13-0-1 in those two Cups, outscoring their foes, 40-6.
“You talk about a record standpoint, she has broken barriers with that,” former USWNT star Carli Lloyd told ESPN.com in 2019. “Off the field, she is obviously continuing to fight for equality as well in some regards. ... On two different levels, her and our team, we’re somewhat fighting for the same things.
“Jill’s just kind of put her head down every single day and gone about what she’s focused on and been really successful.”
In a 2015 FIFA Magazine story, Ellis explained what the most difficult part of her job was.
“The challenge is making sure getting the best players together and getting them prepared,” she said. “You've got to manage all the pieces and make sure it’s a collective performance. It’s the challenge of getting all these individual pieces working as one, pulling in the same direction, providing the right training. Part of why I wanted this job was that I felt I could lead this and [meet] the challenge of winning a world championship.”
And the best part?
“The privilege of working with these players and coaching this team,” she replied. “It's an unbelievable job. When I decided coaching was my career, this was my goal. It’s been everything I’ve hoped for. I love being in camp. I love the day-to-day, sharing ideas and meeting and talking to my coaches. But ultimately getting out in the field. I think any coach, game day is what you live for. That adrenaline, being in the moment, having the opportunity to win. That’s the fun part of coaching. All the adrenaline junkies just want to do it. It’s in our DNA. I love preparing a team. I love breaking down a team. There is so much about this job that intrigues me.
“My dad said when I went into coaching, ‘If you find something that you love, that isn’t work.’ Sure, there’s long hours, but if it’s something that you truly believe, it’s passion.”
After stepping down as coach in 2019, Ellis became a U.S. Soccer Ambassador and was appointed by FIFA to lead a technical advisory group about the future of women’s soccer. U.S. Soccer also established the Jill Ellis Scholarship Fund, whose goals are to double the number of elite professional female coaches by 2024.
Now 56, Ellis is president of San Diego Wave FC a 2022 National Women’s Soccer League expansion team that reached the playoff semifinals.
Ellis realized her records probably were fleeting, and that a coach’s impact went beyond winning and losing.
“Trophies and titles, they have a shelf life,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “To help a young person get into coaching or find their passion, that would be a phenomenal gift to pay it forward. It doesn’t matter how many wins or loses you come out with.
“It’s really about trying to change the game and make the game better for people to play and enjoy.”