On this particular morning, West Virginia women’s soccer coach Nikki Izzo-Brown had quite a juggling act going. In one hand she was gripping a cell phone while the other was being used to hold her infant daughter Gabby. She was pacing the room in an attempt to keep her daughter distracted just long enough to finish her phone call.
Gabby was an unexpected visitor because Nikki’s husband Joe had to make an emergency visit to the dentist to have a crown fixed. Strewn about amongst the three-ringed binders, recruiting DVDs and laptop computers sitting on a table next to her desk were her childrens’ toys, books, lollipops and binkies.
Her office that morning looked as much like a children’s nursery as it did the command center for one of college soccer’s most successful programs. For some of Nikki’s former players, it might be somewhat surprising seeing all of her childrens’ toys scattered about considering Izzo-Brown’s notorious focus and drive.
“I think when I had Sammie (her oldest daughter) and they heard me singing to her and doing all those things they were like, ‘Wow, she’s human,’” Izzo-Brown said.
In her younger days, it wasn’t uncommon for Nikki and assistant coach Jennifer DePrez to spend an entire night in the office making recruiting calls or going over the next day’s schedule. The two not only shared an apartment together, but also a burning desire to build a first-class soccer program.
Izzo-Brown was always the one on the hottest day of training camp yelling out “Fitness is your friend!” or “It doesn’t take talent to hustle!”
“Oh God,” recalled Rena (Lippa) Lindsay, one of Izzo-Brown’s first players at WVU and now an assistant high school coach in Pittsford, N.Y. “The running, the workouts, the fitness ? it was very, very intense. There were a lot of girls that just wanted to quit. It could be so intimidating.”
Once a group of girls decided to take a spring break trip to Panama City, Fla., and Izzo-Brown somehow found out about the week-long excursion, so she decided to have a two-mile time test on the day the girls returned to Morgantown.
“She just screamed at us and told us things like, ‘You wish you wouldn’t have gone on that trip now, don’t you?’ We were just dying. I was following Nikki (Garzon-Goodenow) just looking at her feet trying not to fall over,” Lindsay said.
Whenever the team was not running fast enough or maintaining a pace Izzo-Brown thought appropriate, she would take off after them and scream, “My blood is boiling!” The girls would scatter and quickly pick up the pace.
A tough player
Terry Gurnett, Nikki’s college coach at Rochester, laughs when recalling her toughness.
“There was a particular school that we played in New York state at the time and they had a forward that was incredibly talented,” he said. “This kid was such an unbelievable challenge and Nikki locked her up and the girl wound up getting thrown out of the game.”
Gurnett also remembered the time Nikki broke her arm and still did more pushups (one-armed) than the rest of the team.
“She came to play every single day and every single practice,” Gurnett said. “Everybody loved her because she was just a wonderful, great person.”
After her playing career, it was Gurnett who gently pushed her into coaching.
“I knew at some level I wanted to be a part of this game and I didn’t know at what level,” Izzo-Brown said. “I wouldn’t say I knew I was going to coach as soon as I graduated from college, but I knew I wasn’t done with the game.
“Back then, I didn’t know if you could make a living as a soccer coach. I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll coach because it’s a way for me to get a master’s degree.’”
Her first real opportunity to make a decent living came at West Virginia Wesleyan, where she knew an Ithaca girl who was running the program there. Izzo-Brown became the head coach the following year and a year after that, she was asked to start the women’s program at WVU..
“We were having a lot of success down there and they asked me if I would be interested in coming up for an interview,” Izzo-Brown said. “I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ But here I am with a great incoming team with Rena Lippa and some real good players and I felt like we could do some damage at the national level, so I was a little hesitant (to make the move to WVU).”
But the allure of starting a new Division I program in a major conference was too appealing to turn down. She kept Michele Hoffman, who was running the club program at WVU, and brought in her Rochester teammate DePrez (now Jennifer Spiker, the wife of Army basketball coach Zach Spiker) as her assistant coaches. When Izzo-Brown first began playing Notre Dame and Connecticut she would often look at their bench players and dream about having them on her team.
“That first year we had kids coming to practice with mascara running down their faces,” Izzo-Brown said. “We had no seniors to show them how to do things.”
“In those early years, not everyone was up to Nikki’s standards so it took a little bit to get the players that she needed,” added Goodenow, a former player and assistant coach for Izzo-Brown.
When women’s soccer was added at WVU in 1996, the athletic department didn’t immediately have a place for Izzo-Brown to work so a bathroom at the Coliseum was turned into a makeshift office that she shared with men’s tennis coach Ed Dickson.
“It was the smallest office I had ever seen and our whole entire team would sit in there and watch films of our games,” said Lindsay. “We were under chairs and sitting on top of each other because it was so small.”
Izzo-Brown and Dickson had an agreement to leave the room whenever someone had to take an important call or handle a private matter with a player. That was awkward, but not quite as awkward as sharing the football stadium with the football team.
“Oh, Don Nehlen just loved having us over there,” Izzo-Brown chuckled, her eyes rolling. “He would say, ‘Your girls are a huge distraction for my guys.’ We couldn’t even walk past his team. He was old school.”
The artificial playing surface was also a constant complaint that Izzo-Brown had to deal with from opposing coaches.
“They would come in and say, ‘Are you kidding me? Do we have to play on this stuff?’” she said.
Then there was the matter of her age. Izzo-Brown was 24 when she took over the WVU program and was so concerned about appearing professional that she purposely tried to look much older than she actually was. The typical coaching gear on the sidelines for games is shorts or sweats and a pullover, but Izzo-Brown those first few years always chose to wear khaki pants and a polo shirt.
“I did it because the referee could never determine who our coach was,” Izzo-Brown recalled. “I had to try to look older than I really was just to define myself from the rest of the people on the sidelines.”
That first season West Virginia’s transitional period lasted only five months while other schools such as Syracuse had an entire year to plan and recruit a roster of players good enough to be competitive. Consequently, West Virginia absorbed some beatings during Izzo-Brown’s first year. The worst was a 12-0 loss at Connecticut.
For someone as competitive as Izzo-Brown (she can’t stand losing a game of cards to her husband) it was almost too much to take.
“Here I am and we’re going back to the hotel and I’m just emotionally drained,” Izzo-Brown recalled. “As a coach you have to take accountability first. Am I putting these kids in a bad position? I have never been beaten that badly in my life. So there was a time after the UConn game when I sat back and I said to myself, ‘Look, we’ve got to plow through this because there’s no turning back.’
“What was I going to do, give up?” she continued. “Notre Dame was coming off a national championship in 1995 and UConn was at three Final Fours and here we are playing with club players against them.”
The moment things really crystallized for Izzo-Brown came during the yearly conference meetings after her first season when one coach got up in front of the entire group and complained, “Why do we have to play a school like West Virginia when we can go play Santa Clara or Stanford?”
“I was thinking to myself, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Talk about adding fuel to my fire! I spent the next few years reminding my kids what some of the other coaches around the conference thought of us,” Izzo-Brown said.
Despite being undermanned that first season, West Virginia went 10-7-2, including a 4-4-1 record in conference play. In 14 years as head coach, Izzo-Brown has never had a losing season – something she maintains is one of her proudest achievements (she taps her knuckles on the table for good luck when she mentions that).
But despite some early struggles, eventually Izzo-Brown’s hard work began to pay off.
“There was one time I brought in 12 recruits by myself and I had to spend the whole time with them because I didn’t have a team for them to be with,” she sighed. “I couldn’t say, ‘Oh go spend some time with some of our athletes.’ I spent 15 hours with them straight. We walked downtown and did things. I might have had one or two people to help me entertain all of those kids. It was crazy.
“You’re thinking, ‘What the heck?’ But you’re young, you’re hard-working and you know there can be something special if you put the time in.”
Developing a consistent winner
In the beginning, Izzo-Brown’s big selling point to recruits was playing time in a major conference, but eventually the higher caliber players want more than just playing time – they wanted to be a part of a well-rounded, successful program.
“When I came here there wasn’t an Olympic Development Program for youth soccer. To me, I just couldn’t believe these young kids didn’t have the opportunity here in our state,” Izzo-Brown said. “Let alone trying to start a Division I program, but I also made the state guy start a development program for the girls. We had 12 girls show up for the first camp and now there are over 200 kids in the ODP program.”
During a three-year period from 1998-2000, Izzo-Brown landed a group of players that included Katie Barnes, Chrissie Abbott, Lisa Stoia and Rachel Kruze. WVU made its first Big East tournament appearance in 1998, and then in 2000, cracked the national rankings and made the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.
“When I signed on to be a part of WVU’s team I had no idea what was in store for me,” said Abbott. “The only thing I told Nikki from the beginning was that I wanted to be an impact player on a good team. At 18 years old I don’t think I even really knew what that meant. In high school I didn’t have the best work ethic and a few of the coaches told me that was my biggest weakness.”
So how did Izzo-Brown get Abbott to work harder?
“I had a healthy fear of her,” she laughed. “We were terrified of her in the best way possible and I loved her more than anything.”
By 2007, West Virginia claimed its first Big East title and was just one victory away from reaching the Final Four. Izzo-Brown was named Big East coach of the year twice in 2001 and 2002 and the Mountaineers are now working on a streak of 10 straight NCAA tournament appearances. It’s the longest sustained success of any current program at WVU.
“When I got my first Big East coach of the year award I kind of laughed because when you have good players it’s not that you have to coach less, but you have to coach kind of differently,” she said. “Those first years we had to coach out of our minds. Last year, we had to coach out of our minds with nine or 10 freshmen and sophomores starting. In 2007, we won the tournament championship and it was just as hard, but it was different work.”
“I am amazingly proud of what she’s accomplished there,” said Gurnett. “She went from zero to 60 and she did it the right way. She built it with great kids who were going to represent the school well. And she has built it so it can be sustained.”
Izzo-Brown’s success has not gone unnoticed. She has had several opportunities to leave and after bouncing each job offer off of her former coach, Nikki has chosen to remain in Morgantown to raise her family.
“I started the program here at Rochester many, many moons ago,” Gurnett said. “Each time she asked me my opinion, I told her the longer I stay here the harder it is to leave and the less I can really give her any advice about staying or going. I had two or three chances to go myself and now I’ve been here 34 years.”
“I’m as loyal as a dog,” Izzo-Brown added. “But I never felt that we couldn’t do big things here. I do believe it’s a special place and it takes special people to make special things happen.”
And while Izzo-Brown is as driven as ever to win a national championship and achieve all of the things she set out to do 15 years ago when she started the WVU program, she understands some of that is not under her control.
“If I make my list, of course I want to win a national championship,” she said. “That is a priority to win championships here for the soccer program. But it’s also a priority to give back to the game or to give back to a cause.
“We used to go to Maryland (to play in a tournament to support funding for a cure for breast cancer) and somebody said to me, ‘Why are you taking West Virginia money and bringing it to Maryland?’ I was like, ‘Great point, why not raise it for the Betty Puskar Center here?’ Now we’ve raised close to $60,000 for the facility. That’s doing something.”
Izzo-Brown also tries to find more time for her growing family. Recently she celebrated her oldest daughter’s eighth birthday by taking the family out to see Shrek. The next four days she was on the road recruiting.
“You talk about tough,” Izzo-Brown said.
Perhaps that is why it’s not such a big deal these days having Gabby around in the office on a very busy Monday morning. She is just a little reminder of the things that are truly important in life.
By John Antonik