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Alex Simmons: Golden Eaglettes star to head coach

By MARK MCGEE - For the T-G
Posted 5/2/23

Most of the time when a new coach is hired it is because the previous coach failed to do the job.

This was not the case for Alex Fuller Simmons, a former Shelbyville Central High School Golden …

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Alex Simmons: Golden Eaglettes star to head coach


Most of the time when a new coach is hired it is because the previous coach failed to do the job.

This was not the case for Alex Fuller Simmons, a former Shelbyville Central High School Golden Eaglettes basketball star. She is the new head coach at the University of Memphis, replacing Katrina Merriweather. In her two years as head coach Merriweather put the program on the winning track with an NIT bid for the 2022-23 season and a 22-11 record. Merriweather left for Cincinnati, her alma mater.

Simmons is not scared of having to follow a successful coach. She admits she is looking forward to the challenge.

“That is what was intriguing about the job as well as returning to my home state,” Simmons said. “In the last two years, they were able to kind of build the program and get into the NIT in the second year.

“It is a program that I think is on its way up. I definitely wanted to take advantage of the opportunity.”

Simmons is coming off an NCAA bid for Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. She completed her fifth and final season at Gardner-Webb with a 29-5 record and an 18-0 worksheet in the Big South Conference. Her team also put together a 21-game winning streak. The 29 victories and the win streak are both school and conference records.

The Runnin’ Bulldogs are the first Big South women’s basketball team to be undefeated in conference play. It was the first invitation for the “Big Dance” for Gardner-Webb going back to the 2010-11 season. Simmons was named Big South Coach of the Year for her efforts.

Gardner-Webb was the first job for Simmons as a head coach. She started out strong, winning her first-ever game against Florida from the SEC. Her all-time record was 90-59.

“If you have to end something you always want to try to end it on top,” Simmons said. “I think we did just that. The team broke a lot of records. This 2022-23 team will someday go down as one of the best teams ever at Gardner-Webb and maybe even in the history of the Big South Conference.”

Earning her reputation

On the road to her first head coaching position, she first moved to Kansas where she served as a graduate assistant.

 She then spent three years as an assistant at Middle Tennessee State University working primarily with the post players for Rick Insell, her former high school coach.

Her last stop before getting her first head coaching job at Gardner-Webb was at Ole Miss where she was an assistant for Matt Insell, one of Rick’s sons, from 2013-18. She served as interim head coach after Matt was fired.

“In this business, there are a lot of things you learn from,” Simmons said. “I have been a part of all kinds of programs and staffs. My journey has definitely prepared me to be ready for all types of situations.”

Big Orange dreams

During the 2008-2009 season Simmons, an exercise science major at Tennessee, decided she wanted to be a coach.

“I was definitely the only senior player,” Simmons said. “I have always had a love for basketball, but my interest in coaching was really sparked during that year.”

The Lady Vols earned NCAA National Championships in 2007 and 2008. They were also in the Final Four in 2005. The 2006 team earned an “Elite Eight” berth.

Simmons was blessed to play for Pat Summitt at Tennessee. Most experts rate Summitt as the finest women’s basketball coach in the history of the sport. Every day was a learning experience.

“She wanted to teach you lessons both on the court and off of the court,” Simmons said. “Being under her, learning from her, and learning her discipline and her reputation for greatness are things I have really tried to mimic in how I coach now.

“I spent a lot of time with the coaches. I was in graduate classes which were only a couple of days a week, so I had more time to spend in the office and being around the coaches.”

The discipline Summitt instilled in her players and herself is what stands out the most for Simmons.

“It was the level of discipline you have to have as a head coach with all of the things you have to do in the office, on the court, being a mom, and being a wife,” Simmons said. “I remember her work ethic in doing what it takes and never settling for anything no matter how much you win or how many championships you win.

“She was the first female I ever played for so she was definitely someone I could learn from. I would say she was my role model.”

A golden start

Simmons admits she was a late bloomer, playing her first organized basketball in a junior pro when she was in the fifth grade. Tom Insell, a son of Rick Insell, noticed Simmons and started working with her.

“Everyone was attracted to my height,” Simmons said. “Plus, we have a family history with the Buchanans and Harveys in basketball at Central High. Tom saw me play in a junior pro league at Eakin Elementary School. He talked to my mom and the rest is history from there.

“I remember my first workout with Tom at Liberty School where his other team was practicing. He had me do a zigzag ballhandling drill. I couldn’t get down low enough because I had literally just started playing. That was my first time in an organized workout.”

Eventually, the 6-foot-3 Simmons would play for Rick Insell when the Golden Eaglettes were one of the premier high school teams in the country.

She remembers the first time she stepped on the court wearing blue and gold during a summer camp game.

“When the varsity team would play the rising freshmen would always sit behind the bench,” Simmons said. “I had my basketball shoes on and was ready to play. It was a test for Coach Insell’s underclassmen to always be ready to play.

“Coach Insell put me into the game against a team that was pretty big. He told me my only job was to rebound. I think I had six or so rebounds. I didn’t know if I was going to be good or not, but I knew I was coachable and could play hard.”

Simmons would play on state championship teams in 2001, 2003, and 2004 for Shelbyville. She was a three-time All-State selection and was the Midstate Player of the Year in 2003 and TSSAA Miss Basketball and Gatorade Tennessee Girls Basketball Player of the Year in 2004. After her senior season, she played in both the WBCA and McDonald’s All-America games.

“With Coach Insell it was how to coach and how to play and never settling for anything,” Simmons said. “Coach Insell always said ‘You’ve never arrived.’

“I have always kept that close to me. It is always a good reminder that no matter how much you get you always want more. He used that ‘you’ve never arrived’ constantly. I use it on my teams now.”

Simmons’s family support helped her to develop as a player. Everyone on the team was held accountable not only by Rick Insell but by their teammates. Players who couldn’t withstand such scrutiny weren’t going to be successful.

“People always said you have to be special to be an Eaglette,” Simmons said. “That is not something that was given to you back then.

“We went to high school. We played basketball. But we were the Eaglettes, and we didn’t just play to win games. We played to win championships.”

Lucky 13

Simmons, 36, is the 13th head coach for the women’s program at Memphis. She is joined by her husband Christian and daughters Carsyn and Channing.

In a release from the school, Memphis athletic director Laird Veatch said of Simmons, “Her historic success, both as a player and coach, as well as her strong ties to the state of Tennessee and within the basketball community made her the obvious choice for us in continuing to grow the Memphis women’s basketball program.”

She likes what she sees in the Memphis program but admits there will be changes and adjustments as she puts her brand on the Tigers program.

“It is going to be an adjustment for some of the players and the staff,” Simmons said. “You have to get used to different systems and different personalities. It takes time to do that.

“I feel very confident. With the players we have and the ones coming in I think we will be able to play the style we need to b successful on the court.”