MORGANTOWN — The whistle dangles around Nikki Izzo-Brown’s neck, as much a part of her anatomy as the nose on her face and the fingers on her hands. She’s dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, the sun kept off her face by a baseball cap.
These are her work clothes, the same kind of outfit she’s worn for the last 19 years since establishing West Virginia’s women’s soccer program and building it into a Top 10 team, the defending Big 12 champions, a national title contender.
You can only imagine the time, the effort, the travel, the recruiting … all that has gone into this while not avoiding the purge of coaches at WVU since Oliver Luck became athletic director that has claimed everyone but her, rifle coach Jon Hammond, men’s basketball coach Bob Huggins and women’s basketball coach Mike Carey.
It is not coincidence they are the four most successful programs at the school.
“Every day, I wanted to build something special. Every day the goal was to win the national championship and to establish a program that could win championships year in and year out,” she said. “I have every day kept in mind the end result and worked hard to get better. Every year it’s been change and it’s been different but the goals have remained the same.”
When you think of women’s soccer at West Virginia, you have to remember that it is the product of this one women, a woman who wasn’t sure she wanted to get into coaching when she left Rochester back in 1993 and took a job at West Virginia Wesleyan.
She’d been a wonderful player at Rochester.
And a tough one.
Her coach, Terry Gurnett, once told John Antonick of WVU staff a story about how tough she was.
“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.”
And Gurnett still has not gotten over the time Izzo-Brown broke her arm and still did more pushups with one arm than the rest of the team.
Gurnett knew she was meant to coach and gently guided her in that direction.
At Wesleyan, things with the soccer program were solid. She was content in her year there, but then came this call from West Virginia saying they wanted to start a women’s soccer program and wanted to interview her.
“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 challenge was of doing it from scratch at the Division I level was one she could not pass up. But it was hard, very hard.
“West Virginia wasn’t ready for a women’s soccer program. There were a lot of things not ready here. There was nothing ready,” she said.
She recalls sharing an office with Ed Dickson, the tennis coach, in a bathroom at the Coliseum.
She didn’t say if it was a men’s or women’s room, but it was as difficult a situation as you could get, without an office, a team, a field.
They would practice at the football stadium, something not very popular with the coach, Don Nehlen, as his players seemed to enjoy watching the young ladies play more than they enjoyed perfecting the draw play.
But things came together and Izzo-Brown found ways to win, never having a losing season and now ranked No. 10 in the country.
Was it harder to build a program than to keep one at the top?
She thought for a moment, then answered “It’s been more challenging to build from scratch than to remain successful. Ultimately, starting a program is nothing I regret doing. I think it was huge for my development as a coach and a professional but if I was asked to start a program again, I think I would choose not to do that.”
Being a coach, however, is an unnatural existence, especially if you wish to have a family and Nikki Izzo-Brown is a family person. It presented challenges, coaching and traveling and recruiting and being married and raising daughters and being a public figure.
“My philosophy has always been you have glass balls and you have rubber balls and you are always juggling. You can’t let the glass balls fall, even if some days the rubber balls fall,” she said. “I have prioritized things of importance to me and there has been a lot of sacrifice along the way.”
The sacrifice is measured in hours and days with her family.
“Maybe there isn’t as much personal time for me, but my personal time will always be spent with my family,” she said.
Sometimes situations like this are difficult for the man, but her husband, Joe, has been able to deal with it all.
“I’ve always said this, it takes a real man to be in the position my husband has been in. The confidence he possesses and the understanding he has in our family, is very unique and very special. It takes a lot for my husband and my family to balance when I’m taken so many different places,” she said.
And, she admits, has had to adjust to keep things as normal as possible.
“U.S. Soccer has asked a lot of me and there’s a lot of times I’ve had to say no. I can’t just take away from my time with my family,” she said. “I was asked to go to Spain with the under-23 national team for a camp. It was close to 14 days away from my family and I turned it down. It was just too much … and that’s hard.”
She’s been there to watch her daughters — Samantha, Gracie and Gabriella — grow. They are now 12, 8 and 5 , respectively, and someday she could be faced with the situation of actually having to coach them.
“I’d love to,” she said. “I’m so selfish when it comes to family time. I used to say that was too hard, but if my daughters were willing, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
Of course, they’d better be winning players.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel