Coach, mentor, dad: Ellis has trifecta

U.S. women's soccer coach Jill Ellis takes after her father, John, who's been her biggest backer. Jeff Sipsey/UCLA

John Ellis can still recall his days in the British Royal Marine Commando force, the feeling of sudden pressure around his neck and mid-section, of being squeezed in the vice-like grip.

The assailant was less than 4 feet tall, not yet of primary school age and wore her hair in a little blond bob.

"I could be gone two to three months," recalled Ellis, 75. "The family was not allowed to know where I was, and then suddenly I'm coming home and oh my God, when I came down that gangplank, she just clung on and wouldn't let go."

"She'd jump up and down when she saw the ship come in," said her mother Margaret. "The sailors would line the decks and she'd say, 'Is that my daddy? Is that my daddy? Is that my daddy?' because they all looked the same. And all the while, she never stopped jumping up and down."

Now the head coach of the U.S. women's national soccer team, Jill Ellis was always daddy's little girl.

There were no organized sports for girls in England when Jill Ellis was growing up. Her father could only detect his daughter's "athletic desire" by watching her catch butterflies with her older brother Paul.

"She always had to catch more than her brother," he said. "It was her competitive edge."

Still, Jill had to be content chasing after Paul and his friends in the backyard and the schoolyard, or kicking a ball against the wall.

"I had always been around a ball but not the formal environment of a team," she recalled. "I felt left out."

That changed in 1980, when John, who had helped develop national soccer programs worldwide as the British government's soccer ambassador, moved his family to America to coach the Allendale Boys Club in Virginia. (Paul, two years Jill's senior, elected to stay in England and join the British Royal Marines, serving in the Faulklands War in '82.)

Jill first played field hockey and then soccer for her high school and later club team, and where the new kid with the heavy accent found acceptance. It was on the soccer field where father and daughter found a shared love.

"He had so much passion for the game, he knew I loved sports and he recognized that coming to the U.S., hopefully I would have the opportunity to play something," she said.

"Many people say, 'Your dad was so ahead of his time,' and he was a feminist in the truest sense, but he's very much for opportunities for all people. ... To him, a soccer player is a soccer player."

Ellis excelled at her opportunities, earning third-team All-America status at William and Mary, and helping her club team to the U-19 national championship. But with all that success, she never seriously envisioned soccer as a career.

Instead she saw college soccer as a vehicle to work toward her master's degree at N.C. State. And while she worked as a grad assistant for the Wolfpack women's team during those years, "In my heart," Ellis admitted, "I thought soccer had served its purpose."

One of those purposes was drawing a shy kid out of her shell, which was accomplished when John Ellis had his daughter work summers for him at his now widely respected Soccer Academy.

"What soccer and coaching gave me was sort of a stage," said Jill, 47, who has also served as the director of development for the U.S. Soccer Federation. "If I walk into a room, I'm quite content to sit in the corner and chat with people who walk by. But coaching forced me to come out of my shell. My father put me in situations where I became more and more comfortable. It was great because he believed in me as a coach but it also made me think and experience the game as a teacher."

It also made her think about what kind of teacher she might be.

"My dad has a certain spirit, a twinkle in his eye, someone who can set a certain standard for players but also convey it with humor," she said. "What I learned from him is that coaching is, more than anything, about connecting with people. You can have all the information in your head, but if people don't want to be around you, they won't listen, you won't be able to influence and inspire.

"His energy and passion for the game is infectious and watching him with people, no matter what age, I saw that connection."

Though John encouraged his daughter to accept an offer to be a technical writer with a large communications company -- "I wanted her to look at something different," he said - he was thrilled two years later when April Heinrichs offered her the assistant coaching job at Maryland. The pay: roughly $6,000 a year.

"My mom said, 'You have got to be absolutely kidding me,' " Jill said.

"So Jill looked at dad," John Ellis said with a chuckle. "I always thought money was one of the evils in life and never something that motivated me. I told her, 'Sweetheart, you have the ability, you have the personality, don't worry about the money. If you're meant to do this, enjoy yourself and do your thing and things will sort themselves out.'

"I lived in a tough world and I was used to seeing a lot of nasty things. I know how precious life is. ... And I learned if you have passion and desire, you must follow your dream. Jillian understood."

John Ellis' theory? That every two to three years you hit a crossroads in life, when it's time to look around, reevaluate, reassess.

Jill Ellis' theory? Check with dad.

"I was the one who was apprehensive, oh my goodness, it this going to work?" said Margaret. "But her dad was always the one behind her saying, 'You can do it, yes you can.' "

Once, when a coach tried to recruit Jill to his club team, she asked her father, 'Dad, do you think I'm good enough?'

"It's OK sweetheart," he told her, "just go out and play, have a go at it, enjoy yourself, you'll be fine."

Until the coach walked over to his team after the first round of tryouts and put it up to a vote on whether they wanted Jill in the group.

"When the man came over, I put my cards on the table," John recalled. "I told him, 'I think Jillian is good enough to play for your team but asking the girls to vote is a no-no. This is your team, it's your decision and my decision is that she would never feel right on your team.' "

As an adult, when Jill had to decide whether to leave Virginia [where she had followed Heinrichs from Maryland] to start a women's soccer program at the University of Illinois in 1997, and again two years later whether to accept UCLA's offer, there were the same questions, the same talks with her father.

"You're a great development coach," he told her before she went to Illinois. "But am I good enough?" she asked.

"There's a point in life when you have to live on the edge and be able to step out there," John told her. "If you're right, it's brilliant and if you're not, so what? But I'm telling you now, you're good enough."

Ellis responded with an above-.500 record over two seasons mostly with recreational-level players, attracting the attention of UCLA. There, she would settle in for the next 12 years, guiding the Bruins to eight NCAA Final Fours, including seven straight from 2003-2009, and a record of 229-45-14.

"My dad has always been someone with a lot of life lessons. . . . ," Ellis said. "He just always has this really great outlook on life.

"If I call him and am upset because I just lost my wallet, he'll say, 'Just think how excited you'll be when you find it.' It's always positive and that's been great because obviously in sports, you have high and lows."

When Jill's next decision came, whether to leave UCLA to be U.S. Soccer's women's development director, it may have been the most difficult of all.

"I had a young daughter, I had established myself there and I had more to think about than just me," Ellis said. "But I thought about the risk my father took to bring my mom and myself to a new country.

"He always told me, 'Challenge yourself with new opportunities. It really isn't a risk because you always have your family behind you, you'll always land on your feet.'

"From the time I was little, he told me, 'If you find something you love, it's not work.' And he was right."

This last decision was the easiest. Jill Ellis still called her father but there were no questions asked, no pep talks needed.

"This one I knew I wanted to do," she said. "I said 'Dad, I'm going to go interview,' and he was like, 'Awesome, this was always part of the master plan.' "

Heinrichs, one of dozens of coaches mentored by John through the Soccer Academy who went on to coach at the major college and national team level, knows all about the plan.

"In '87, well before I ever thought of it, John told me, 'April, one day you're going to be the national team coach,' " recalled Heinrichs, who went on to hold the job from 2000-'04. "I wasn't planning on coaching, I wasn't dreaming of it. I had no vision that someone could do it beyond coaching part-time.

"But he planted that seed 13 years before I became national team coach and I'm sure he has done that with a lot of people."

Whenever the seed was planted with his daughter, whenever it eventually grew, is unimportant, friends and family say.

"Jill was slow to emerge because her father has such a big personality and her brother followed in his footsteps," Heinrichs said. "She was, by nature shy, timid and uncertain of the way she would fit into the world. But coaching has brought out her personality and in a lot of ways, she has the biggest personality in her family because she has gone outside her comfort zone.

"She's the best coach of us all."

In 2006, Paul Ellis took over as director of Soccer Academy, Inc., allowing his parents to retire.

The best part about it, say John and Margaret, who will celebrate their 51st wedding anniversary in August, is that their grandchildren -- Jill's 9-year-old daughter and Paul's 13-year-old twins -- can visit them in Orlando.

"When she goes to see them, he has the whole week planned out and sends me an itinerary of everything they're going to do. I said, 'Listen dad, you're 75, you don't have to do all this. You're going to be knackered.

"He paused and said, 'Honey, I want this to be a week she'll never forget.' "

There is a painting in John and Margaret's bedroom that's an artist's rendering of a landing craft coming to shore in Burma, a battle in which John lost dear friends.

"I'd ask him about it but he never wanted to talk about it," Jill said. "Part of it was sheltering me from things and it was probably a painful part of his life."

But one thought strikes Ellis and sticks with her.

"A lot of people want to only talk about their homeland but my father is absolutely passionate about this country," she said. "He was adamant that both he and my mom go for their citizenships and I was also unbelievably proud of becoming an American citizen."

Jillian Ellis is the third straight foreign-born coach of the U.S. women's national soccer team but the only one who is a naturalized American citizen.

"I'm truly honored and humbled to have the opportunity I have now," she said. "And it makes it really special to know my father is around to see it and experience it as well."