Past experiences are key for Kyra Elzy as Kentucky head coach


Kentucky Wildcats head coach Kyra Elzy talks to her team during a timeout during the UK vs. Missouri women’s basketball game on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021, at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 61-55. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff.

Barkley Truax

Intensity, value, tough love and taking care of the woman next to you are four aspects of coaching Kyra Elzy has taken with her throughout her basketball journey.

Elzy’s experiences over the last 25 years leading up to becoming head coach of Kentucky women’s basketball have prepared her for the position she’s in right now.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work for Coach [Matthew] Mitchell, Bonnie Hendrickson, Holly Warlick and Mary Taylor Cowles, who all prepared me for the moment to become a head coach,” Elzy said. “With that said, even with all the preparation and experience, there’s nothing like moving over to that [head coaching] seat.”

Elzy had to learn some aspects of head coaching while on the job, including how to make decisions in difficult situations. 

“Sometimes [your gut feeling] is right, and sometimes it’s not. You just have to continue to learn and grow in your head coaching career,” Elzy said.

Elzy’s career in hoops has been well documented, dating back to her days playing for Oldham County High School in La Grange, Kentucky, where she was highly recruited after notching over 3,000 points and 1,700 rebounds in her career.

“I had an amazing career at Oldham County,” Elzy said. “It really laid the foundation to who I was as a basketball player and who I am now as a coach.”

Playing for the likes of Mark Evans and Hall of Famer Dave Wiedeman made a lasting impression on not only her as a basketball player, but as she transitioned into her coaching career as well.

Her time as an Oldham County Colonel ended bittersweetly as Kentucky’s 1995 Miss Basketball, Ukari Figgs, and the Scott County Cardinals ended their run in the tournament before Elzy went off to college.

“Our goal at Oldham County was always to get to the state championship and win,” Elzy said. “I’m still very sad to this day — I cannot get over it — that I did not win a state championship. Ukari Figgs hit the last second shot on us. I still call her every state tournament to remind her that Oldham County was picked to win that year.”

Elzy, who was already committed to Tennessee at that point, got a call from Tennessee Lady Vols coaching legend Pat Summitt after the loss.

“The night that we lost, Coach Summitt called me and I was crying uncontrollably, and she was like, ‘I love your toughness. I love that you hate to lose,’” Elzy said. “She said this [loss] is going to prepare you [for Tennessee], and it’s going to be much sweeter when we win a national championship.”

Summitt and Elzy went on to win two national championships together in 1997 and 1998. Elzy said those titles made up for the heart-breaking loss in high school. 

While at Tennessee, Elzy was able to learn from Summitt, whom many regard as one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time. This provided an invaluable opportunity for a young mind with a future in the coaching industry like Elzy, and even now, she said she implements the philosophies Summitt ingrained into her on a day-to-day basis.

Some principles she’s taken throughout her coaching journey is to “take care of your people,” meaning that Elzy is making sure that everyone in her program is valued. The intensity in how she runs her program, which means tough love as well as building great relationships—not only with her players, but the coaches, managers and everyone in between.

Through these philosophies, Elzy has implemented them into her day-to-day coaching schemes to try and better the Kentucky program — athletes want to play for her. Just in the past two years, Elzy has brought in high-profile transfers to Lexington such as 2019 PAC-12 Freshman of the Year Dre’Una Edwards and former five-star recruits Chasity Patterson, Olivia Owens, Robyn Benton and Jazmine Massengil.

Elzy knows what success on and off the court looks like, which benefits her in the recruiting game. She’s the first Lady Vol to earn her master’s degree while still playing, which she sees as a way to attract recruits who wouldn’t otherwise look Kentucky’s way.

“There is a standard expectation in which we run this program,” Elzy said about her players’ success on the court and in the classroom. “One: [having] women of high character is really important. Two: academics — the ball will quit bouncing and [we have to make] sure that we are preparing them for life after college.”

Players are held to that standard of the program and will be reprimanded if it’s not followed. On Oct. 8, it was announced that sophomore guard Erin Toller had been dismissed from the team after not upholding those standards and all of a sudden, for a few days, it seemed as though Elzy and Kentucky were down to just 10 players for the upcoming 2021-22 season. It was announced the following week that freshman walk-on Kristen Crenshaw-Gill would be filling the void left by Toller’s departure.

“You deal with adversity every year,” Elzy said. “That’s part of the game. I have [11] players that I’m really confident in. They play hard, they work hard, they want to win and they compete. We train all summer to make sure that our fitness fits how we are supposed to play. That’s how we’re moving forward; we have a lot of talent and we will approach each game and each practice in order to get better to reach our goals.”

The Toller situation is not the first time Elzy has had to deal with blindside adversity. With the sudden retirement of former Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell, Elzy was brought to the helm unexpectedly as interim head coach before quickly earning the title of head coach after a 6-0 start to the 2020-21 season. Elzy called it a shock to the system.

“It was a shocking turn of events, but I’m so proud of this coaching staff, this team and this program to be able to handle the adversity and have a successful year,” she said.

Elzy’s first season as head coach was full of achievements. Kentucky remained in the Associated Press Top 25 all season long, never dipping below No. 20. With Elzy calling the shots, the Wildcats also took down five ranked opponents (Indiana, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Georgia) — back-to-back wins against Arkansas and Mississippi State in late December and early January were the first against top-15 teams since 2013.

Those wins earned Elzy her first espnW National Coach of the Week, while Kentucky earned United States Basketball Writers Association Team of the Week honors in the same week. 

Kentucky was also one of 10 teams with at least four victories over ranked teams entering the NCAA tournament, where they entered as the No. 4 seed and eventually fell to the No. 5 seeded Iowa Hawkeyes.

Her efforts awarded her the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Spaulding Maggie Dixon NCAA Division I NCAA Rookie Coach of the Year.

Elzy has been with the program for the last five seasons, but this is her second stint in Lexington. From 2012-16, she took her coaching talents back to Knoxville to coach at her alma mater.

“When Coach Summitt calls, you say yes,” Elzy said. 

Coming off an SEC Championship win with Kentucky in 2012, she had to make a tough decision about her future after being named Associate Head Coach by Mitchell two years prior.

“Ultimately, it was one of the toughest decisions in my professional career to make that decision to go back,” Elzy said. “Tennessee is my alma mater and a place that I love … but Kentucky has always been the stop that has been special and probably prepared me the most for this opportunity that I have now.”

Fast forward five years — Elzy is exactly where she wants to be, with her full attention focused on basketball and her players.

After falling to Iowa in the Round of 32 in last season’s NCAA Tournament, she said her team has been grinding all off-season with an emphasis on defense, playing harder and creating the chemistry the pandemic deprived them of in her first season as shot caller.

“We’ve had a great off-season,” Elzy said. “This team is really special. l love our energy, the [team’s] work ethic and willingness to be coached and [the team] has been better in all facets of their experience.”

With a small group of athletes who are tight-knit and have each other’s backs on and off the courts, while at the same time fighting for the name on the front of their jersey, only time will tell what Kentucky women’s basketball will accomplish in the Elzy era.

“Our goal year in and year out is to be in that top echelon, win an SEC championship, get to a Final Four and take this program to the next level,” Elzy said. “And you have to have a certain type of player in order to achieve that.”