UK Hoops coaches share bond with UT


UK women’s basketball head coach Matthew Mitchell looks on as his team plays Ole Miss at Memorial Coliseum on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010. Photo by Scott Hannigan

The UK women’s basketball coaching staff is comprised of UK employees, but they all were Volunteers at one time.

UK head coach Matthew Mitchell and his assistant coaches Kyra Elzy, Matt Insell and Shalon Pillow all share, in an ironic twist, a connection to one of UK’s most-hated rivals: the Tennessee Volunteers.

“It’s something else because all of us had incredible experiences at (Tennessee) that meant so much to us in our development as people,” Mitchell said.

UK has been the beneficiary of that development as the connections to Tennessee can be traced to Hall of Famer Pat Summitt, head coach of the Lady Vols and an important mentor for all the UK coaches.

In the mid-1990s, Mitchell, who was a coach in the high school ranks, received a suggestion from a friend to assist at Summitt’s summer camps. For three summers, Mitchell put in his time, and then, after his fourth summer in Knoxville, Tenn., Mitchell was hired as a graduate assistant for the 1999-2000 season.

Away from his home state of Mississippi, Summitt welcomed Mitchell into what he called a “family atmosphere.”

On Summitt’s staff, Mitchell learned the importance of practice to a team’s success, a lesson he still employs with his team today.

“(Summitt) is incredibly consistent with energy in practice,” Mitchell said. “The players knew what to expect from an energy level.”

These players included Elzy, who played for the Lady Vols from 1996-2001, and Pillow, who played for the Lady Vols from 1998-2002.

“It was a chance to play at a national powerhouse and an opportunity to play for Coach Summitt, which is what every little girl dreams of,” said Elzy, a Kentucky native, of her decision to attend Tennessee.

Insell also worked at Summitt’s summer camps, but never coached alongside Summitt despite attending Tennessee as an undergraduate from 2001-2005. But Insell knows Summitt well because his father, Rick, is good friends with Summitt and is head coach of the women’s basketball team at Middle Tennessee State.

The Tennessee connection may seem somewhat conspicuous, but all four coaches said that more important than their previous affiliation is their commitment to a vision where UK can sustain excellence over a period of time like Summitt has managed to do in 35 years at the helm of Tennessee.

“They have the history of winning,” Elzy said of the biggest difference between the Cats and the Lady Vols.

But history might change as the pupils will meet their teacher when the No. 16 Cats hit the road to face the Southeastern Conference-leading and No. 4 Lady Vols on Thursday. UK can still win the SEC regular season title, but a win against the Lady Vols is necessary for that to happen.

“It’ll be an exciting game,” Insell said. “You take one game at a time, but you definitely highlight Tennessee on your schedule.”