The coach who recruited her left after her freshman season. A week later, she tore her ACL during a pickup game. Then the new coach switched her from a guard to a 5-foot-9 post player in an up-tempo offense.
This was not how Ashley Earley imagined her Vanderbilt career.
“I’m not going to lie – adversity hit,” she says more than 10 years later. “It was difficult initially.”
But transferring never crossed her mind.
A high school All-American out of Memphis and the Tennessee Player of the Year in 2001, Earley embraced her new coaching staff. Under the guidance of head coach Melanie Balcomb and position coach Vicky Picott, she left three years later as an All-SEC post player, scored nearly 1,400 points and was taken in the WNBA Draft.
“I know coach [Balcomb] always talks about how I believed and trusted in my leadership skills,” Earley said. “But I believed in them and what they were telling me. That’s what made the difference for me.”
That trust helped fuel another passion in Earley – coaching. And it has brought her back to Vanderbilt.
Earley returns to the Commodores as an assistant on Balcomb's staff. She will coach the post players, a job held the previous 11 years by Picott, who decided to step away from basketball.
Earley is the first former Vanderbilt player to rejoin the Commodores as an assistant since Chavonne Hammond, who spent two years (2000-02) on Jim Foster’s staff after playing from 1997-2000. It is the first coaching hire Balcomb has made since 2009 when she added Tom Garrick, who was promoted to associate head coach.
Since graduating in 2005, Earley has stayed close to the hardwood. After getting drafted by the Indiana Fever, she played professionally in Israel. Initially planning to go to law school, she said the desire to coach took over. She earned her master’s degree in marketing at Alabama, where she served as a graduate assistant, then was an assistant at Tennessee Tech, Rhode Island, Marquette and most recently Virginia.
“I started coaching largely based on my experience here as a player,” Earley said. “I know how much I’ve grown as a person and as a player for Coach Balcomb and under the staff that was here. A lot of it had to do with Vicky Picott as well. To come back to where it all started really was a goal for me at some point. It feels good. It feels like coming home.”
Balcomb initially saw Earley as a quiet and unassuming 19-year-old who had torn her ACL a week after Balcomb took the job at Vanderbilt.
She remembers Earley struggling her sophomore season as she made the adjustment inside. But while her first year in Balcomb’s system proved difficult at times, Earley admits she also grew. She soaked in instruction from Picott, who Balcomb calls one of the best post coaches in the country. Plus, she gained confidence from playing against two-time Kodak All-American and the program’s all-time leading scorer, 6-foot-6 Chantelle Anderson every day in practice of the 2002-03 season.
“She improved more than anybody I’ve had in the last two years to where she was just a force,” Balcomb recalls. “We went as Ashley went. She had broad shoulders and put the whole team on her back.”
Earley, who as a freshman was part of a team that reached the Elite Eight, led the Commodores to an SEC Tournament championship and back-to-back Sweet 16s. In 2004-05, she averaged 18.4 points and 9.4 rebounds while shooting 64 percent from the field. She scored 15 points in her final game – a regional semifinal loss to eventual national champ Michigan State.
“She is one of the toughest players I ever coached,” Balcomb said. “Extremely competitive. Got more out of herself probably than anybody I’ve ever coached. She was a 5-9 and a half post player that led the league in field-goal percentage and I think was second in the country. Phenomenal. I trusted her on the court and I trusted her off the court. She also had the leadership piece that I think she’ll help pass down to the players.”
The Commodores are young inside with the graduation of leading scorer Tiffany Clarke and the loss of Stephanie Holzer, who announced earlier in the week she was forgoing her senior year after a slew of leg injuries. Redshirt-freshman Kristen Gaffney recently tore her ACL for the second time.
SEC All-Freshman selection Heather Bowe returns with the most experience in the paint after averaging 6.2 points and 4.3 rebounds while playing in every game and making 13 starts. Kendall Shaw and Rayte’a Long also each played more than 23 games as freshmen reserves. The Commodores add 6-1 freshman forward Marqu’es Webb, a four-star recruit and first-team all-state selection from Hoover, Ala.
Though welcomed with a young crop of players, Earley looks forward to deriving from personal experiences to aid in her teaching.
“Adversity at some point is going to hit,” she said. “You have to believe the people around you really have your best interest in mind. I believe coach Balcomb had my best interest in mind from the very beginning. Before they listen to the Xs and Os they need to know you care. That’s what I really try to do very early.”