All in all, the corporate world was treating Jill Ellis ’88, L.H.D. ’16 just fine. She had a degree in English Literature from William & Mary and found steady work as a technical writer. Of course, it’s times like these that fate often intervenes.
Ellis got a call one day from April Heinrichs, Maryland’s head soccer coach at the time. A second assistant coaching job had become vacant, and she wondered if Ellis would be interested.
Hmm … stay with a job that offered career stability or take a chance in an unpredictable profession.
“It was one of those crossroads,” said Ellis. “So, I decided, why not? Let’s give it a shot.”
What a shot it was.
Nearly three decades later, Ellis offers a coaching resume that includes 248 wins in 14 seasons at the college level and leading the U.S. national team to FIFA World Cup championships in 2015 and ’19. The only other coach to win back-to-back, men’s or women’s, was Italy’s Vittorio Pozzo in 1934 and ’38.
Saturday in Frisco, Texas, Ellis will be among six inductees to the National Soccer Hall of Fame. That’s a long way from growing up in England, where there were no avenues for girls’ soccer, and even from her days on the pitch at William & Mary.
“Certainly it’s very humbling and a very proud moment in my career,” Ellis said by phone from the West Coast, where she is team president of the National Women’s Soccer League’s (NWSL) San Diego Wave FC. “It’s something you don’t anticipate or focus on, but when it comes, it’s a very humbling honor.
“It forces one to focus on the entirety of the journey. It really makes you appreciate all the incredible people who have come through your life and been a part of this journey.”
Many of those people she met at William & Mary. And, to this day, they remain a big part of her life.
One of the first friends Ellis made after coming to the U.S. in 1982 was a fellow 16-year-old named Julie Cunningham (now Shackford). They attended rival high schools in Northern Virginia but were teammates on the Braddock Road Bluebelles club team.
“She was so shy,” said Shackford, W&M’s head coach since 2018. “She looked like a little boy with this short hair just as cute as could be. She fit in right away.”
In August of ’84, they enrolled at William & Mary and joined the soccer team. They quickly added freshman Nancy Reinisch (now O’Toole) ’88 and sophomore Marsha Fishburne (now Lycan) ’87 to their circle. To this day, they are family.
“They’ve been right by my side the whole journey,” Ellis said. “Julie was someone who also understood coaching, so we’ve been able to have great conversations not just about our friendship but the sport and our careers.
“With Nancy, Marsha and Julie, they’ve been there in real highs and tough moments as well. They’ve really been true friends.”
Ellis played forward with the Tribe and became one of the young program’s best players. In four seasons, she had 83 points and 32 goals, both of which were school records at the time and remain in the top 10 today.
Shackford, a three-time All-American, was in the center and midfield. Lycan played forward and O’Toole left back.
“Jill was very confident in her knowledge of the game,” O’Toole said. “She was a player-coach. She’d tell me, ‘Hey, Nance, I think you need to try this.’ A tremendous leader and player.”
Lycan had that same description.
“Coming from England when soccer was still in its infancy here, she had a tactical understanding of the game that seemed more advanced than the rest of us,” she said. “I remember her being very helpful to the team from a coaching standpoint.”
From 1984-87, the Tribe compiled a record of 44-20-11 and made the first four NCAA appearances in program history. In 1987, Ellis’ and Shackford’s senior year, W&M defeated Virginia 1-0 in overtime for its first postseason win.
Ellis grew up on the southeastern coast of England. Her father, John, was a highly regarded soccer (or football) ambassador for the British government who helped create programs throughout the world.
Jill knew the game as well as anyone. Yet because it was considered too rough, there were no organized leagues for girls. She played mostly field hockey, netball and track — although she did get in an occasional soccer match.
“The only chance I got to play was in the schoolyard with the boys or in the back yard with my brother and his friends,” Ellis said. “I never played organized soccer until I moved to the U.S.”
The Bluebells already had Shackford and future Tribe defender Megan McCarthy ’88. Adding Ellis, who brought an unbeatable combination of skill and savvy, was the final piece.
“We won the (under-19) national championship in the summer of ’84, and Jill was sick as a dog through the whole tournament,” Shackford said. “We just kept throwing her in here and there and we won the whole thing.”
Ellis’ coaching career actually began just after graduation as an assistant at N.C. State. That was more of a means to an end as she earned her Master’s in technical writing. That set up a well-paying job at a telecommunications company typing computer manuals and such.
“Sports were a very big part of my life, but the timing wasn’t such that it would be a career path that women actively pursued,” she said. “There was a lack of opportunity and in truth, sports were something that I saw as a vehicle to get an education.
“Even though my father was a coach, there was never an intention for me to go into coaching. I coached every summer at his camp and I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t something I would pursue as a career.”
Then came that call from Heinrichs at Maryland. Ellis coached on Heinrichs’ staff three seasons and followed her to Virginia in 1996. In ’97, Ellis was hired as head coach at Illinois, where she led the Illini to a 19-18 record over the next two seasons.
In 1999, Ellis headed west for UCLA. Over the next 12 seasons, she coached the Bruins to a record of 229-45-14. UCLA made the national semifinals eight times — including 2004, when it defeated Shackford’s Princeton team 2-0.
After the 2010 season, Ellis left Westwood to become the development director for the U.S. youth national team. Life moved quickly from there: assistant for the national team in 2011, interim head coach in ’12, interim label removed in ’14, and World Cup championships in ’15 and ’19.
All along, Ellis’ Tribe crew was by her side. Shackford, O’Toole and Lycan were in Canada in 2015 and France in 2019 to see their friend and country bring home the World Cup.
“When they were playing in the semifinals in Canada, we said, ‘If she wins, we have to go to Vancouver,'” O’Toole said. “They won the semifinals, and that night, 48 hours before the finals, we were like, ‘OK, we’ve got to find flights and hotel rooms in Vancouver.’
“Sometimes, even today, it’s really hard to believe. Like … wow.”
And, naturally, they’ll be in Frisco.
“Of course we had to be here to watch her receive the pinnacle of soccer accolades,” Lycan said. “We are so incredibly proud of her receiving such a well-deserved honor.”
Also making the trip will be John Daly, an assistant coach in Ellis’ first three seasons and head coach her senior year. W&M President Katherine A. Rowe will also be there.
“Coach Ellis leads with fierceness, integrity and absolute joy,” Rowe said. “Her fan base of W&M students, alumni, faculty and staff is cheering her on as she receives this well-earned recognition.”
It is well earned. But Ellis is quick to point out she didn’t do it alone.
“You really are walking on the shoulders of others in this sport, and I really can’t thank them enough for not just the education but the experience I had at William & Mary,” she said. “All these tremendous human beings and coaches helped instill in me a passion in the sport.
“If I hadn’t had a good experience at William & Mary, I probably would have never gotten into coaching. So in large part, it was all because of the great experience I had there.”