The best things in life are often unexpected. What cooked the past few days and boiled over Thursday night for new Kentucky women’s basketball coach Kyra Elzy certainly qualifies.
“I always dreamed of taking over for Coach Mitchell as he rode off into the sunset. I never quite imagined it like this,” the new interim head coach said in her introductory press conference Friday morning. “That’s the funny thing about life, it never quite goes like planned.”
Mitchell clearly did not intend to retire from coaching following his offseason brain surgery; otherwise, this would have happened way before now. But his recovery process was extremely taxing. The action to take was something the thirteen-year head coach has been weighing for a while, according to athletic director Mitch Barnhart.
“[Mitchell had] been sharing with me a little bit about the challenges of just getting back after his surgery… we talked a few times and he just couldn’t get to where he felt comfortable,” Barnhart said. ‘“He called on Wednesday and said, ‘Hey, can we talk for a few minutes,’ and I said sure. He said he didn’t feel like he was where he wanted to be and he wasn’t 100 percent.”
Elzy, who spent has spent the last four years - and eight years total - of her 19-year coaching career as the UK associate head coach, was tasked with breaking the news to the players. She told reporters the conversation was difficult – as one could imagine – but that her squad intends on playing its hearts out for their departed leader.
“It was a really tough day… you know, they signed up to play for him,” Elzy said. “They were emotional, but happy that he is truly at peace with his decision. They want the best for him.”
“They said ‘We are going to grind coach. We are going to put our head down and make this the best season. That is the best way we can pay honor and tribute,’ she continued. “They are going to give their all for coach and this program.”
Elzy and Mitchell both come from the coaching tree of legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summit. This shared characteristic has led to great chemistry and shared ideals during their time together. While there are a lot of similarities, Elzy will be adding her own tweaks to the recipe now that she is top chef, in part because this year’s ingredients aren’t identical to those from 2019.
“We have installed a lot of things that we have run in the past. It fits our personnel. I will probably add some more quick hitters as we head into the season,” she said. “[Because] our versatility this year in depth makes us different. Unlike last year, we have post presence… we have people that can score inside.”
“This year we truly can play inside-out, which changes the dynamic of our offense.”
While she currently is sporting the interim tag, Elzy’s prior coaching experience in the SEC and at Kentucky seemingly put her in a good position to maintain the job going forward. Barnhart said it’s definitely a possibility, but he wants to do his due diligence before making a final declaration.
“We wouldn’t be taking these steps if we didn’t think that this would be a long-term solution,” he said. “Usually in an interview process you have the opportunity to spend a little time going through a couple of different conversations and just talking philosophically… because of COVID and how fast this occurred, I didn’t get a chance to have those conversations with Kyra.”
“That's an important step… just like any coach, you don’t walk in without a game plan, and as the athletic director, I’d like to know what the game plan is.”
He also told reporters there would be no definitive deadline for Elzy to prove her worth.
“I’m not going to say it’s December 1, December 15, I’m not going to do that… you guys know me well enough to know that I will be thoughtful and thorough, and spend some time,” he said. “I told her this morning on the phone that I will be intentional about getting together, but right now her focus is November 25.”
No matter what comes, Elzy is speaking as if the interim tag was not applied. She’s anxious to get to work and build off the fantastic foundation coach Mitchell has vacated.
“I want to be tough defensively and disrupt… we are going to continue to play up tempo and recruit players that are versatile,” she said. “[When a] team is extremely versatile… there are endless possibilities of what you can do.”
Her first shot as a head coach comes on November 25th, when the Cats will face off with Murray State in Memorial Coliseum. Tip time and network have yet to be announced.