ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - It would be hard for Khalilah Mitchell to imagine life without basketball. Yet, if her elementary school coach had gotten his way, the life of UCF's newest women's basketball assistant coach might have turned out very differently.
Mitchell was 11 years old when she first saw the sport played at her elementary school in her hometown of New Orleans.
"I tried out for the team and I made it but I had no idea what I was doing," Mitchell said. "All I know is I loved it and I wanted to do it."
At the time, the coach was leaving the school. He told the incoming coach that Mitchell and two boys on the co-ed team would never be able to help the program and he should cut them. The new coach left them all on the roster. Mitchell ended up with a starting role that season.
"If I could say anything to him (the outgoing coach), I'd just say thank you for the added motivation," Mitchell said.
Soon, a ball was permanently in Mitchell's hands where ever she went. She spent countless hours navigating the pothole ridden streets getting her "handles tight" like the And 1 players she aimed to mimic. She went onto enjoy a successful career at LSU as one of two players in NCAA history (men or women) to reach five Final Fours.
Upon graduation in 2007, she headed to Orlando to pursue her master's degree and get her start in the business as a manager with the women's basketball team. It was quite a transition for the once-high-profile athlete.
"I was very humbled by that experience," Mitchell said. "I didn't have a problem with it at all. It was just when you thought about it -- you went to five Final Fours back to back to back and you're leaving from a city and state where everybody knows you, and then you come into a manager position, picking up towels, wiping sweat. That was the biggest thing - appreciating where I was coming from, appreciating where I am and sacrificing whatever I needed to sacrifice to get where I needed and wanted to be."
Mitchell's hard work paid off. After her graduate assistantship concluded in 2011, she was promoted to the director of program development. As she became more confident in her role with the team, she felt ready to take the next step once again.
"This past year, I really took it seriously when we had recruits come on campus for a weekend and I had to make an impression," Mitchell said. "I was successful at it. I did well at it, and I had the confidence in myself that I was ready to become an assistant coach. It's that time now. It happened at a great time. I couldn't have planned it - God knew what he was doing."
When Richard Fortune left the coaching staff in the off-season, Mitchell seized the opportunity to apply for the open position. She interviewed for the job on a Friday and was left to wait over the weekend for any word from UCF.
"Coach (Joi Williams) was going to the BIG EAST meetings in Jacksonville on that Sunday, and it just so happened that I was in Jacksonville, so she asked if I wanted to meet for breakfast," Mitchell said. "Her mom slipped up and told me before she did. Her mom said, `Joi did you tell her she got the job?' and I screamed and gave coach like three hugs. We were laughing about that."
Mitchell will now enter her fourth year with the program, and she is anxious to begin her first year as a coach. She hit the ground running on the recruiting trail last week, and she believes her background as a collegiate athlete will help provide the foundation for the type of coach she aspires to be.
"The reason why I wanted to coach was because of my experiences. As a player, you need somebody to relate to on the coaching staff. Somebody that understands your point of view, where you are coming from and somebody that can meet you halfway. That's the kind of coach I want to be," Mitchell said. "I just want to give information. I want to understand you. I want to let you know you can communicate with me. I'm here for you. I might not always tell you things you want to hear, but I tell you because I want you to know how it's going to affect you in the long run. I'm going to be honest and real with you."