By Trey Williams
East Tennessee State women’s basketball coach Brittney Ezell’s recent four-year contract extension, you might say, resulted from her taking care of business.
Many quickly mention her caring nature when assessing Ezell’s coaching prowess. This past season’s team, which struggled with Milligan College for a half in its opener and erased a 24-point deficit before losing in overtime to No. 17 Chattanooga in the Southern Conference Tournament championship to help clinch an NIT berth, seemed to be an extension of her “heart.”
The Buccaneers steadily improved to go 21-12, including an 11-3 league record, during Ezell’s second season at ETSU. It was a rewarding year for the competitive Ezell, who started at point guard in basketball and won Golden Gloves at shortstop and third base on excellent softball teams at Alabama (1994-98).
Rebounding and defense demonstrated the Bucs’ desire to please Ezell. ETSU opponents shot 39.3 from the field and 27.4 percent from 3-point range. The Bucs outrebounded opponents by an average of 2.1 per game.
“I think defending and rebounding is the best way to be a good teammate, the best way to be selfless,” Ezell said. “And I think our kids really bought into that. You can tell a lot about a person – their buy-in – by the way they defend, by their willingness to help, by their willingness to block out, by their willingness to dive on the floor.”
Nicci Kelly is a graduate assistant for Ezell. Before playing for Van Chancellor at LSU and professionally in South Korea, Kelly played for Ezell at Okaloosa-Walton Community College (now Northwest Florida State).
“She recruited me when I was 17 years old and since then I’ve had this special relationship with her,” Kelly said. “She’s definitely family to me. When she recruited me the one thing that stood out and just drew me to her was … she believed in me as a player and she made sure that I knew that. Her level of caring, her wanting to help others – she cares, period.”
Kelly appreciated Ezell staying in touch when she was overseas. And Ezell attended her awards ceremony for her graduate program last week.
“She has a service heart,” Kelly said. “I never imagined being on the same bench coaching with Coach Ezell, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. … One thing she always says is ‘we’re privileged to play the game of basketball and even coach the game. Our worst day is probably somebody’s best day.’ … I think what coach brings to the team and the table is giving us the right perspective about life and where we are.”
Tianna Tarter, who made the Southern Conference all-freshman team this season, also immediately emphasized her affection for Ezell. Tarter was a three-time all-state player at Science Hill, and Ezell was her third coach in as many seasons.
“She is very consistent in what she says,” Tarter said. “I like her a lot. She is a very good coach and funny. Sometimes you never know when she is being serious. She is more like my AAU coach (Michael Potts). I think they coach just alike. They actually care for the players off the court and on. I’m very grateful to have her as a coach.”
Tarter’s trying teenage years, not to mention her talent, make her easy for a coach to love. In May of 2010 Tarter led the Tennessee Trotters to an AAU championship despite the weekend beginning with her father Lanny dying of a heart attack at age 37.
“She’s endured a lot,” Ezell said. “She’s a perfect example of perseverance. You can’t help but pull for a kid that’s really kind of doing this knowing she may not have had the support system after her father passed. And I think that’s one of the things that drives her; she wants to make her family proud.”
Ezell, who grew up admiring the play-making skills of Magic Johnson, John Stockton and Texas’ Kamie Ethridge, has a point guard kinship with Tarter.
“But I’m most proud of her growth as a person, her growth as a student,” Ezell said. “Everybody knew that she could play. College is really an opportunity to get better and showcase those skills. But we’ve gotta make sure that we keep them grounded and focused on the things that matter, and that’s her education and what kind of teammate she is, what kind of person she becomes. That’s the kind of thing that makes me smile when I think about Tianna. She’s gonna continue to grow and get better in all facets of being a student-athlete. And I think she’s definitely making her hometown proud, she’s making her family proud.”
Family matters to Ezell. Her mother, Denise Goodwin, was her first basketball coach when she was five or six years old.
Ezell lives with her brother Ben and her cousin, Dakota Love. Ben is a graduate assistant on the ETSU football staff. Love, an ETSU sophomore, is a manager for Brittney’s Bucs.
Spare time is scarce, but occasionally they’re together long enough for Brittney to dominate while they watch “Jeopardy.” She’s an avid reader.
“I really enjoy being around them, because no one in my family calls me ‘coach,’” Ezell said. “I get to hear my first name. … That’s probably my safe haven and what I need to keep everything balanced.”
Ben is almost 13 years younger than Brittney. When she was a four-year starter for Rick Moody and helping Alabama to a No. 1 ranking and four straight Sweet 16s (1995-98), Ben was a member of Moody’s Munchkins.
“When I watched her play when she was in college … she had a fire about her,” Ben said. “She was able to enhance the people around her – how they performed. And that’s rare. Not everybody can do that. To be a really effective coach you have to be able to pull that stuff out of your players and out of the people that are surrounding you.
“You could really see this year’s team – they just had a fight about them. … And I think they kind of took that from her.”
Ben witnessed the improbable overtime-forcing rally against Chattanooga in the SoCon championship.
“I think anybody that’s a competitor – when you see something like that it gives you chills,” he said. “I know it gave me chills. … There was people screaming and going crazy the moment they hit that basket to tie it up.”
Ezell likes football nearly as much as Ben does. In fact, she recommended Ben to ETSU football coach Carl Torbush, who she got to know when she was at Alabama.
“Coach Torbush has been such a wonderful mentor to me – to be able to go and bounce some ideas off of him,” Ezell said.
A Franklin native, Ezell is a Tennessee Titans fan. She also likes the New York Yankees. Coaching influences include Bear Bryant, Vince Lombardi and Joe Torre.
“I just love sports,” Ezell said. “And anybody that’s out in front leading and impacting the lives of those they lead – I try to steal a little bit of what they do.”
Prior to ETSU Ezell was head coach at Belmont, where she befriended men’s coach Rick Byrd.
“He is one of the finest gentlemen in the game,” she said. “He’s got a brilliant offensive mind. He is very humble and very willing to share ideas and talk through things. He was great to me in my time at Belmont. I miss him. I miss being able to walk in his office and pick his brain. He and his wife Cheryl were very welcoming to me at Belmont and they were the first ones to congratulate me when I took this job and let me know that they were pulling for me and still watching games.”
Ezell enjoys talking basketball. She said Tennessee’s Tamika Catchings was probably the best player her teams faced.
“She was so big that you couldn’t guard her at my size but she was so quick that we couldn’t put a legitimate post on her,” Ezell said. “She could shoot the ball from the perimeter. She was great going at the rim. She was a dogged defender. She would rebound.”
Catchings brought to mind the fact that ETSU nearly beat the team that beat Tennessee this season. Chattanooga defeated the No. 4 Lady Vols in November.
A couple of more recruiting classes and Ezell intends to have ETSU at that level. She noted recruiting advantages such as Torbush and his wife Janet attending the Southern Conference tournament and professors touting the study habits of Lady Bucs to potential recruits.
“What really sells ETSU for us is the people,” Ezell said. “You walk into the grocery store and someone walks up to you and tells you how much they enjoyed an interview you did or that your kids were doing something in the community. … Johnson City is just a very welcoming place, and I think kids feel that when they show up here for a visit.”
And Ezell’s passion can seal the deal.