Brittney Ezell learned at a young age the power of perseverance and hard work.
When she was 6, her mother, Denise, went to sign her up to play basketball in Athens, Ala. Denise was told there weren’t any leagues for girls.
No matter. Brittney played for the boys’ team that Denise coached to four straight championships.
A few years later, after they moved to Franklin, Ezell again found herself among the boys in a junior pro league at Overton High. The league featured a who’s who of future local stars: Kentucky and NBA standout Ron Mercer, Maryland forward Brian Watkins and Clark Humphreys, the 1997 NCAA champion in the pole vault.
“You just thought it was normal,” Ezell said. “They never treated me any different because I competed. I wasn’t out there just to be some anomaly, just to be some girl to throw a wrinkle in. I wanted to play, and I wanted to get better.”
Twenty-five years later, Ezell continues to build on her gritty, hard-working mentality. The Franklin native and former Alabama point guard has Belmont competing for a championship in its first year in the Ohio Valley Conference, her third year in charge of the program.
The Bruins’ win total has improved in each of her three seasons, including a 15-11 mark this year heading into next week’s OVC Tournament at Municipal Auditorium.
Most reflective of Ezell’s personality, though, are the defensive numbers. Belmont leads the league in scoring defense and field-goal percentage defense.
From the season before Ezell arrived, 2009-10, to now the Bruins have jumped from 243rd nationally to 81st in scoring defense and from 106th to 26th in field-goal percentage defense.
“We tell our kids if you play hard, if you play to the point of exhaustion, you’re giving back and you’re earning your scholarship,” Ezell said. “You’re not just stealing money. You’re not out here chucking up shots and trying to be cute and be pretty. You’re out here working.”
Her mother, a former homecoming queen at Antioch, is an assistant superintendent for Williamson County Schools. Her stepfather, Eddie Goodwin, who has been in her life since she was9, is the president and chief operating officer of Lebanon-based Lochinvar, a manufacturer of water heaters, boilers and pool heaters.
Describing Goodwin, a former offensive lineman at Memphis, as her hero, Ezell remembers driving to school with him to work out together at 6 a.m.
“Not a lot of kids do that anymore,” Ezell said. “I wasn’t given a car when I was 16. I had a job all through high school. I just think it was natural. I think you should be brought up to learn the value of work.”
That philosophy wasn’t lost on Belmont athletics director Mike Strickland. Nor was her vibrant and passionate demeanor.
Strickland recalls a moment around 15 years ago, meeting a confident recent college graduate who was interviewing for a graduate assistant position under coach Tony Cross, whom Ezell ultimately replaced.
She didn’t get the GA spot and instead went to Nebraska for the same position. But Strickland kept tabs over the next decade as Ezell was one of the youngest recruiting coordinators in the country at Alabama, built a successful program in her first head coaching job at Okaloosa-Walton Junior College in Florida and helped turn around Division II Montevallo (Ala.) in two short years.
“I was just so impressed with her,” Strickland said. “You put people in the back of your mind and maybe I’ll come back to them someday. That is one I want to remember. She is going to be good. I think she’ll be a star someday.”
She was a star long before she joined the coaching ranks.
A three-sport athlete at Franklin High, as an electric 5-foot-5 point guard she helped lead the Rebels to consecutive state semifinals and tallied more than 2,000 points and 600 assists. Franklin didn’t waste any time to honor her, retiring her jersey while she was a freshman in college.
She says she was sought out by every Southeastern Conference school except one — Vanderbilt. Her size kept the Commodores from pursuing her, Ezell recalls. But she says she didn’t take it personally; she formed a friendship with then-Vanderbilt coach Jim Foster and even officiated some of his son’s games.
Instead, Ezell was wooed to Alabama by Tide assistant coach Dottie Kelso, a native of Lewisburg, Tenn. Kelso died at 31 of a brain aneurism when Ezell was a senior in high school and never saw her play at Alabama.
With Ezell running the point, Alabama won 20-plus games and reached the Sweet 16 all four years. She also played shortstop for the softball team and was the school’s first female two-sport athlete in more than a decade.
Now in her third head coaching stint, Ezell appears to be settling in. With Rick Byrd’s office right next door, the coaches often pick each other’s brains. She has also compiled a staff that is the fourth-youngest among Division I programs, with Jonathan Davis, 31, as the lone holdover from Cross’ staff.
Ezell is the third coach in the program’s history and the first in more than a quarter century. Cross resigned in 2010 after 26 seasons.
And the local girl has faced little resistance in trying to rebuild the Bruins.
“She didn’t have to win us over,” senior center Alyssa Visbeen said. “For me, she continued to say, ‘I didn’t recruit you but you’re still mine.’ She made sure I knew I was still going to be her player and that she treasured me just as much as any other player she recruited. She helped us realize what we get to do is a privilege.”