PALMETTO BAY, Fla. — People gawked every time teenage Jillian Anne Ellis opened her mouth. Her thick British accent was hard to understand. Even simply stating her name became a chore.
“Huh? Julian?” They’d say. She started going by Jill.
Before moving to the United States in July 1981, Ellis was more outgoing. She soon became painfully shy. She wouldn’t speak very much and let friends order for her at restaurants to avoid the, “I’m sorry, what?”
Ellis is still an introvert now at 53 years old, but her life is a far departure from that withdrawn younger self she remembers. For the past 5 1/2 years, she’s been in the spotlight as head coach of the United States women’s national team – a team bigger, better and more outspoken than ever before.
Media attention, public interest and scrutiny peaked when the U.S. won the World Cup in 2015 and again this past summer, when Ellis became the first coach to win two Women’s World Cup titles.
Do you support equal pay? What do you think about President Trump’s tweet calling out Megan Rapinoe? Did your staff scout England’s hotel? Do you identify as English or American? Are your players too arrogant? Why did your players celebrate all 13 goals against Thailand? Can you beat France?
During World Cup news conferences, Ellis responded to all the questions while maintaining the same mild demeanor she’s known for, a half-smile always on her face.
“I can go talk in front of groups and those sorts of things, but I’m most content to go sit in the corner of a room. I struggle to make conversations,” Ellis said during a wide ranging, exclusive interview with Pro Soccer USA.
It’s like a stage persona, she explained. Off stage, she’s a life-long learner who loves people and teaching. She’s a wife, pet lover, peacock caretaker and gamer — her daughter revealed she likes fantasy role-playing game “The Elder Scrolls,” then laughed and said, “Oh, she’s going to kill me.” Ellis is the goofy mom who loudly sings Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” in the car, turning the wheel slightly to roll with the lyrics. And she often starts a sentence with “My dad said” to help explain her way of thinking.
On stage, she’s been one of the world’s most successful coaches. FIFA named her 2019 Coach of the Year. She handled a lot of criticism along the way from those who doubted her tactical knowledge and roster-building when she took over in 2014 and began revamping the U.S. team. She also balanced being an employee of the U.S. Soccer Federation with supporting her players’ fight with the organization for equitable pay.
Sunday afternoon will be her last time on that stage. Ellis will step down as head coach following the Americans’ final Victory Tour match against Korea Republic at Soldier Field in Chicago. She enters the match with a 106-7-18 record with the U.S. national team, making her the winningest coach in program history.
“After 2015, a lot of changes came and she had a tough job ahead of her,” U.S. veteran Crystal Dunn said. “We did well, the team came together, and it was great.
“I think it’s really important as a female coach that she has that under her belt, and I think it’s empowered a lot of people to want to stay in soccer. She’s paved the way for women.”
Ellis was born in Cowplain, England, a suburb of Portsmouth she says isn’t as rural as it sounds. She described her childhood as happy and sports-centric. The family wasn’t poor, but couldn’t afford everything they wanted, either. She and her brother, Paul, often satisfied soccer yearnings by playing “mini football” in the backyard with a tennis ball.
Her father, John, was an adventurer and traveled a lot as a Royal Marines commando who served for 21 years. He’d plan family vacations to be lifelong memories. Every summer, they took an eight-hour drive to Edinburgh, Scotland, to visit their grandparents. To this day, it’s Ellis’ favorite city. Her mother, Margaret, worked in food service and took care of the children when John was away.
When her parents were in their mid-40s, they decided to pick up and move to the United States for a new adventure building Soccer Academy, a family business focused on providing young players opportunities in the sport.
Growing up in England in the 1970s, Ellis couldn’t name a single female soccer player. The English Football Association didn’t lift its 50-year ban on women’s teams until five years after Ellis was born. Her idols instead were male track stars, Manchester United players and the men’s national teams for England and Scotland.
That changed in the U.S. She helped lead her high school team to the 1984 state championship in Virginia and won a national title with her club team. She went on to play at William & Mary (1984-87) while studying English literature. She did graduate work in technical writing at NC State and started working in that field, but she kept feeling a pull toward coaching.
Ellis was a graduate assistant with the women’s soccer team at NC State. She later became an assistant coach at Maryland and Virginia before landing her first head coaching job at Illinois. She then spent 12 years at UCLA, leading the Bruins to eight NCAA Final Fours.
She held various roles in U.S. Soccer, including assistant coach, interim coach and development director before taking over as head coach of the U.S. women’s national team.
Last Christmas, Ellis started to think about stepping down after the World Cup, either by choice or by force if the team lost.
“My dad and I had a conversation about this, that often times when people stay in something for a long time, sometimes it’s not healthy … you don’t have growth and fresh ideas and new minds,” Ellis said. “I’ve been brought up with the fact that change is good.”
Ellis’ wife, Betsy Stephenson, and daughter, Lily, keep things rolling at home when she is on the road. She’s looking forward to spending more time with them and helping Lily navigate her teenage years.
“It’s exciting for us. She’s going to get to unpack her bag, be around, not coming and going,” Betsy said. “But also, this is the last time we’ll be in a Victory Tour game or a postgame celebration, so we soaked it all in and I think she did too.”
Sitting on a plush gray chair on her living room floor, Ellis held a tiny boxer rescue named Ian while he chewed relentlessly on her hand. Her house smelled like apricot. A sleek design with pops of color completes the mid-century mod décor that looks like it could be featured in a Martha Stewart magazine.
Ellis and her family adopted Ian after winning her second World Cup. After winning her first, they adopted a lab mix named Champ. Together, they’re Champ-Ian, two of four dogs in the household.
“Oh, I don’t think people probably know how in love she is with her pets,” Betsy said with a smirk as Ellis pleaded to not be painted as a crazy cat lady.
She also has a cat named Oreo and feeds about 50 wild peacocks that roam through her yard. Ellis promised the former owner of her Palmetto Bay, Florida, home she’d take care of them.
At around 9:45 a.m. Sept. 5, the day before her birthday, only a handful of the wild birds lingered on the lawn. Two stray cats lounged beneath SUVs in the driveway.
“Oh, I have to send a picture to Rose,” Ellis smiled, snapping a picture of her clumsy pup and texting it to World Cup breakout star Rose Lavelle, who scored in the championship victory and was named to FIFA’s Starting XI.
A little while later, Ellis laughed when she received a text back that read, “Look at his puppy cankles!”
The exchange is what one might expect from a coach and player who just won a World Cup together, but player-coach relationships aren’t always easy.
A year after the U.S. lost to Sweden surprisingly early during the 2016 Olympics, some players asked for a coach change if their concerns about the team’s direction weren’t addressed, according to a Sports Illustrated report.
Ellis said she wasn’t surprised when it happened. She didn’t expect everyone to be happy when she started making changes, and as her dad said, “You’re not a coach until you’ve been fired.” Previous national team coaches also went through similar situations.
“That’s the nature of coaching, and all jobs really,” she said. “I don’t see it as unusual, because I see it as it’s kind of part of the job. It’s like a parent. You’re never going to be popular all the time as a parent because you have to make decisions that are not going to be received well, that are gonna upset someone. And this is the national team. This is the most competitive team in the world.
“My dad said to me, ‘When you get into coaching, 50% of the team is with ya, 50% are against ya.’”
Lavelle recalled a time she wasn’t happy with Ellis, her senior year of college when she was supposed to go into national team camp but had a slight hamstring issue. Ellis told her she wasn’t taking care of herself.
“I think my first memory is when she called me on the phone and basically told me to get my ‘ish together. … and honestly, thank God she did,” Lavelle said. “Because I think she always had this belief and confidence in me even when I didn’t see it myself.
“There’s been so much she’s done and had to manage, and I think she did it so gracefully and held herself so well, and honestly kind of showed everyone up. I think she had a plan and stuck to it, and it paid off.”
Ellis said goodbye to the puppy before hopping in her red Mazda and driving around the corner to Lily’s school. Walking toward the gymnasium, she was stopped every couple of feet with big smiles and congratulations.
“You must be exhausted,” one school administrator said to Ellis, who flew home the night before from a Victory Tour game against Portugal in Minnesota and was leaving the next morning to speak at a U.S. Soccer board meeting in New Jersey.
Ellis was in the moment, though, at the school for a question-and-answer session. The mayor of Palmetto Bay then proclaimed it Jill Ellis Day and wheeled out a giant birthday cake.
When Ellis mentioned equal pay in one of her answers, the entire gymnasium erupted in applause.
“Everybody is into it,” Lily said of her classmates’ reaction to the topic.
Ellis and Betsy adopted Lily from Mexico when she was 3 months old. She’s now an astute and observant high school freshman, who’s witnessed all the ups and downs that come with coaching the national team.
“After games and stuff, I sometimes look up my mom just to see what people said, and sometimes it’s like backlash. It’s horrible,” Lily said of her social media searches. “Since I’m older, I can see it now. I try to not look. A lot of people now are taking all that back because she won, but before that, it was like, ‘Who do you think you are? Someone should fire her!’ All this stuff. I never really realized all that negativity existed, and I was like, ‘Oh god, this is why people don’t have social media, like my mom.’
“To be honest, I don’t think there’s many other people in the world who could handle the pressure like her, because it’s so much. And I think being a woman in coaching is a whole different thing. Equal pay and all that. I think she handles it amazingly.”
Being a woman in coaching can bring challenges. Being a gay woman in coaching brought more – especially during the early years. It was a different time, and Ellis kept her private life on the backburner so it couldn’t be used against her when trying to recruit players.
She recalled asking the father of a UCLA recruit why they chose to homeschool their daughter. He responded, “Well, I just didn’t want her corrupted by those homosexuals, ya know?”
“And I remember at that moment going, ‘Oh hey, I think it’s time for your tour,’” Ellis said. “You were labeled. You were criticized. It was almost something you were gonna spread.
“Late ’80s, early ’90s, mid-’90s, I just was trying to build a career. Everybody already was like, ‘If you play a sport, you’re gay.’ And now if you’re coaching, you’re for sure gay, and it was something I struggled with. I really did.”
It added to her already reserved nature. Sharing her personal life, even with those close to her, didn’t come easy — until she met Betsy in the early 2000s. At the time, Betsy worked as a women’s athletic director at UCLA. She went on to become the AD of Emory and now works as a fundraiser for the University of Miami’s hospital. The two married in 2013.
“I just thought, ‘Wow.’ This is a person who just seemed very comfortable with herself and was established and successful, a driven female, a professional, and suddenly I was like, ‘OK.’ It was suddenly realizing that, ya know what? I don’t have to live in the shadows.”
Ellis navigated life from the shadows to the world stage and will now retreat back to a quieter place.
She doesn’t know what’s next professionally. She’ll remain with U.S. Soccer as an ambassador, but beyond that, she hasn’t made firm plans. She’s been asked about her interest in everything from speaking engagements to coaching a men’s team or leading another national team.
“I quote my dad a lot, but, like he said, ‘If you’re a good person and you have a bit of ability, you’ll always land on your feet, so you can afford to take risks,’” she said. “So, I have no clear plan.”
Ellis will eventually make a decision about the future, but for now she’s perfectly fine at home, sitting in the corner with her puppy.