KENTUCKY, USA — When you mention Oldham County to Kentucky women’s basketball head coach Kyra Elzy, a wide smile appears.
“That’s right, born and raised,” Elzy loudly and proudly said.
The La Grange native has followed a long road back to her home state to lead the No. 17 Wildcats. And she never forgets it starting back in her hometown.
"Even when my mom didn't have the money, my family or different businesses sponsored for me to go to camps or play AAU basketball,” Elzy remembered. “They gave me an opportunity to live out my dream."
The first-year head coach describes her home as a tight-knit community. Before she ever even got to Oldham County High School, she started playing with her future teammates as far back as sixth grade. Elzy fondly remembers going to team camps at Western Kentucky and Bellarmine, crediting a strong support system for encouraging a sport that expanded her horizons and kept her focused in school.
“They take basketball very seriously at Oldham County,” Elzy said. “They understood that I had goals that I wanted to achieve. And they just didn't let me rest on talent.”
That talent became impossible to ignore. The star shined throughout her Hall-of-Fame career, becoming Oldham County’s all-time leading scorer while leading the Lady Colonels to four district titles, two Eighth Region championships and a Final Four berth in 1993. All of it caught the attention of one of college basketball’s coaching icons: the late Pat Summit of Tennessee.
“Not many people say no to Coach Summit,” Elzy said. “If you really wanted to play with the best against the best and have an opportunity to contend for a national championship, it was a no-brainer: Tennessee was that school.”
The Hall-of-Fame coach challenged Elzy from the moment she arrived in Knoxville. Citing the eight-time national champion’s intensity, the Kentucky native remembers a constant reminder Summit drilled into her brain all of her freshman year to achieve the mental toughness the legendary Lady Volunteer leader preached.
“That we are a two guard away from a national championship,” Elzy recalled. “And there's all these other people that she could recruit, but she picked me out of La Grange, Kentucky. She never let me forget it: every bad practice, every bad game.
“She wrote me a note and put it on my locker. But that's the thing I loved about coach: She wanted you to prove her wrong, to get the best out of you. And we ended up winning a national championship that year. I gave her the note back and she gave me the biggest hug and said, ‘I always knew you had it in you. I just needed to get it out of you.'”
It was the first of back-to-back titles in 1997 and 1998. While Elzy thrived under Summit, she also paid attention to what made her such a successful coach.
“Have a servant’s heart,” Elzy said of one of Summit’s biggest lessons. “It’s always bigger than you. There’s no one bigger than this program.”
She carried that with her during a coaching career that required a great deal of patience. Between Western Kentucky, Kansas, Tennessee and two different stints at Kentucky, Elzy spent 18 years as an assistant coach.
“I truly believe that you put your work in, you grind and people will notice your hard work,” Elzy said. “I am a firm believer in you are exactly where you're supposed to be at the time you're supposed to be there. So I knew one day that I would become a head coach.”
Just maybe not how. She returned to UK in 2016 as an assistant and the associate head coach. Serving under Matthew Mitchell, Elzy made an impact as a stellar recruiter and defensive mind. But eventually, Mitchell would unfortunately have to leave the program.
“Never in a million years how I dreamed that I would become a head coach,” Elzy said. “But that's going to make the book.”
Mitchell, the winningest coach in program history, suffered a concussion in March of 2020 and later had further issues because of it. It caused him to miss much of the offseason and required brain surgery in June after doctors discovered a subdural hematoma, which happens when a blood vessel near the surface of the brain bursts.
“Coach had been out with his injury,” Elzy recalled. “So I had kind of been running practices. And the plan was to prepare for him to come back. And then the closer we got to the season, he and I talked about the possibility of him taking the year off. So that's kind of what I had prepared my mind and heart for, along with the players.”
On Nov. 12, 13 days before UK’s season opener against Murray State, Kentucky announced Mitchell was retiring. The Wildcats named Elzy their interim head coach. She remembers the phone call to inform her of the news.
“That was a moment that I will never forget,” Elzy said. “It was filled with emotion and a sadness because he is my brother. However, I also felt a feeling of responsibility to not want to let him down. He had poured himself into this program.”
About a month after becoming the interim coach, with UK starting the season 6-0, Elzy got the full-time job. Her long-awaited chance to lead a squad of her own sunk in while Wildcat assistants were leading a portion of practice not too long after Kentucky made the official announcement.
“I was standing under the basket,” Elzy remembered. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is my team. Oh, this is my team.’ And I felt my chest get tight. I was like, ‘Oh yeah, here it is.’ And just the excitement, stress and pressure, it's all those emotions at once.”
Kentucky currently stands at 15-5 in her first year leading the team. She’s described this experience, coupled with COVID-19 and social injustices across the country, as “a whirlwind.” Admittedly, Elzy knows she can’t get to everything on her daily checklist and is adjusting to the speed of the job.
“My mentors talk to me often about showing yourself grace,” Elzy said. “It takes time, you're not going to get everything overnight. But continue to evaluate yourself, make sure that you are delegating to your staff and they're feeding you information.
“The days that I'm feeling overwhelmed, which is pretty much every day, I go back and say my two priorities: Number one, pour myself into the players, make sure we're prepared for games and practice. And two, recruit. If I don't get anything else done on my list, if I go back to one and two, that's a win for the day.”
Elzy must consider the long path that led her here a victory. She’s the first Kentucky native to lead UK women’s basketball since the early 1970s. Of course, that’s never lost on the pride of Oldham County.
"It’s a blessing, an opportunity and responsibility that I don't take lightly,” Elzy said. “And my plan now is to give back to a place that has raised me."
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