Kyra Elzy envisioned succeeding Matthew Mitchell as he “rode off into the sunset” of retirement.
But not like this.
The longtime Wildcats assistant coach succeeded her mentor on an interim basis following his stunning announcement to step down after 13 seasons for health reasons.
“It has not totally hit me yet,” Elzy, 42, said during Friday’s online introductory news conference. “But I realize that I am taking over a top team in the country and I’m just going to use this as positivity.
“Not every head coach gets to walk into a team that’s been successful. … The best advice I’ve received is if all else fails, put the ball in (All-American) Rhyne Howard’s hands and let her do what she does best.”
Wise advice, though Elzy has been around Howard, Mitchell and Kentucky long enough to already know that successful blueprint. She has nine years over two stints with the Wildcats, a run sandwiched around four seasons as an assistant at Tennessee, where she won two national titles playing under Hall of Famer Pat Summitt.
Elzy’s intense defense philosophy with No. 11 Kentucky mirrors Mitchell, though Hall of Famer Lin Dunn’s presence on staff has expanded her thinking to include the “dark side” of offense. A pretty easy decision with Howard on the roster.
“They all contribute to how I will coach,” said the LaGrange, Kentucky, native, who has also worked at Kansas and Western Kentucky. “We are going to continue to play up-tempo, recruiting players that are versatile in which our team is extremely versatile now. There’s endless possibilities of what you can do.”
Logical as her ascent seemed considering Elzy’s ties to the program, the process was still emotional because of its suddenness. Mitchell’s announcement comes just 12 days before the season starts.
Athletic director Mitch Barnhart said Mitchell came to him Wednesday and acknowledged that he wasn’t where he wanted to be. They talked again Thursday, with the idea of promoting Elzy. Mitchell later informed the team of his decision with his successor present but minus the AD.
“I needed to let them have that family (time) together,” Barnhart said before acknowledging the possibility of the move becoming long term.
“We’re ready to enjoy the fruits of her labor and how hard she’s prepared,” the AD said. “We’re anxious to watch her.”
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