There are two main things Shelbyville, Tennessee, is known for, as Alex Simmons will tell you.
“The main thing people know of our town is Walking Horses and girl’s basketball,” the Gardner-Webb women’s basketball head coach said.
While the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration is the largest horse show for the Tennessee Walking Breed, there’s another show in town that Simmons personally experienced: Shelbyville Central High School girl’s basketball.
Simmons was born in Louisiana, but at age 2, her immediate family moved to Shelbyville to get closer to its relatives. From 2001 to 2004, Simmons attended and played hoops at the town’s school, all for coach Rick Insell.
Insell had built an incredible program at Shelbyville, appearing in 15 state championship games and bringing 10 crowns back home between 1977 and 2005. Three of those were with Simmons – 2001, 2003 and 2004.
The Insell family impacted Simmons’ basketball career before she reached high school, too. One of Rick’s sons, Tom, discovered the initial softball player at a gym when she was 10. Even though Simmons wasn’t good at the time, she said, he brought her under his wing and helped foster her hunger for hoops.
By the time Simmons entered high school, it was a smooth transition.
“He and his entire family, and in particular his older son, they’re the reason why I started playing basketball,” Simmons explained. “They played an integral part in my playing career and coaching career.”
Under Rick Insell at Shelbyville, Alex Simmons flourished. She was a four-time All-District pick, three-time All-State selection and Mid-State Player of the Year in 2003. As a senior in 2004, the player was named Tennessee Miss Basketball and participated in the WBCA and McDonald’s All-American Games. Simmons was considered one of the best hoopers in the ’04 class.
As such, Simmons was fielding phone calls from a multitude of programs. But it was Florida that really caught her eye.
“I knew I was going to go to Florida to play for Carolyn Peck,” Simmons said.
That was, until Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt called the player shortly before she declared.
“Last minute, Coach Summitt called,” Simmons explained. “The more my family and I talked about it, going to Tennessee just made more sense. I was really close to my grandmother, and I wanted her to be able to see my play. Being realistic, that wasn’t going to happen if I was in Florida.”
It was more than that. She also wanted to continue competing and learning at the highest level, like in high school.
“Going to play at Tennessee, where they win championships year in and year out, and being able to play for, yet again, another Hall of Fame coach,” Simmons said.
While in Knoxville, Alex Simmons experienced similar success to Shelbyville. In her college career from 2004 to 2009, the Lady Vols went to four Elite Eights and three Final Fours and won two national championships in 2007 and 2008.
During her college career, Simmons played in some classic games, like the 2008 Final Four against LSU. The Tigers had bested the Lady Vols for the SEC regular season crown by one game, going 14-0 in league play while Tennessee managed a 13-1 record, a 78-62 home defeat to LSU in February the only blemish. Then, the teams met again in the SEC Tournament Final, and Tennessee came out on top, 61-55, to even the season series, 1-1.
Naturally, a Final Four rubber match was required.
In the third and most important game between the teams, a put-back from Alexis Hornbuckle with 0.7 seconds to go was the decisive score that sent Tennessee back to the national championship game, 47-46, in the lowest scoring Final Four game ever at that point.
“I remember the Final Four game with LSU being up and down the entire game,” Simmons recalled. “I remember Alexis Hornbuckle had a terrible shooting night, and I think the only bucket she made was the bucket that we needed to win.”
Hornbuckle was 1-of-8 from the field that night, with her one conversion giving Tennessee the most important two points of the contest. It allowed the team to compete for another NCAA crown, and it succeeded, taking care of Stanford in the ultimate game, 64-48, to complete the back-to-back.
Simmons’ memory of games is a bit foggy, what was she recalls vividly is the aftermath of the championship.
“Most of our families were there,” she said. “It wasn’t just us – our team, coaches and staff celebrating that championship. It was our families, and they were all there. If anybody knows Pat, they know family was huge to her.
“That was a special moment,” she continued. “I remember that pretty clearly. Everybody’s family, once we got finished and got over to where we were going, everybody’s family was there celebrating together.”
From her freshman year of high school in 2001 to when she left Tennessee in 2009, Alex Simmons was part of five teams that climbed to the mountaintop of their competitions and countless other major accomplishments along the way. By the time her Knoxville days were done, winning was what she knew.
“It was normal, and that was about the mindset of it and having a work ethic to be at the pinnacle where you felt like you were better than your competition,” she explained. “Our team had a mindset that we were better than whatever team we were playing. Now, did we have losses? Yes. Did we have our bad games and ugly wins? Absolutely. But our mindset going into every game was that we were better than our opponent.”
Simmons graduated in December 2008, then took graduate courses the subsequent spring semester. In the summer of 2009, she didn’t know what to do next.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do after finishing,” she said. “I thought about going to play, but I didn’t feel like my knees and my body would stand all of that.”
Summitt and her assistant coach, Holly Warlick, had a good relationship with Kansas head coach Bonnie Hendrickson, and once she had an opening, all it took was some help from the Tennessee coaches to get Alex Simmons a spot on her staff.
Simmons didn’t have any idea that she wanted to coach before the tail end of her time at Tennessee, and she might not have found out without the help from her former coaches.
“That last year at Tennessee, I was the only senior on the team,” Simmons explained. “I was able to spend a little bit more time in the coaches’ offices, because my class schedule wasn’t a normal undergrad schedule. Learning from them and seeing what they did, and then going to Kansas and working for Bonnie, I think those two experiences led me to want to coach.”
By the time the 2009-10 season had finished, Simmons’ love for coaching had solidified. But it wasn’t without a price.
Since moving from Louisiana as a toddler, Simmons hadn’t lived outside of Tennessee. Sure, she had traveled, but for the first time in her life, she was hundreds of miles from family and the place she always knew.
“Moving somewhere where I didn’t know anybody, didn’t know any of the coaches, didn’t know the staff. Literally knew nobody,” she said. “That was pretty tough, and I had some rough times, but it’s all about the perseverance and trying to get through, making the best of whatever situation you’re in. I felt like that’s what I had to do.”
Alex Simmons credits her struggle acclimating in life in Kansas with launching her coaching career.
“It helped tremendously,” she said. “Coaches always have a quote, and it’s something that I use to this day: ‘success is built on inconvenience.’ I felt like that inconvenience going and living in Kansas and not necessarily being comfortable but getting outside my comfort zone. That inconvenience sparked my career up to this point.”
After the 2009-10 campaign, Simmons had a choice: stay at KU for another year to finish her master’s or begin her coaching career immediately. Once Rick Insell, who accepted the women’s basketball head coaching job at Middle Tennessee in 2005, offered her a chance to come home, she made her decision.
Simmons started her first assistant coaching job at Middle Tennessee for Insell in 2010, the first step in taking her basketball career full circle. She learned under him for three seasons, now taking instructions as a coach and not a player. When Rick’s other son, Matt, got the head coaching job at Ole Miss in 2013, she looked to Simmons to round out his staff.
Again, Alex Simmons stayed in the family, moving to Oxford to continue learning under an Insell. For five years, she served on Matt Insell’s staff in the SEC, coaching against her alma mater on a handful of occasions. It wasn’t the first time, though, as she had that experience while at MTSU with Summitt still patrolling the sideline, but going back to Knoxville was always special for her.
“It was always a good time when I could go back and see all the fans,” she said. “Tennessee fans, they’re not fair-weathered. They always remember the former players and things like that.”
When Matt Insell was let go at Ole Miss, Simmons was elevated to interim head coach for the start of the offseason. But with the regime change imminent and a feeling of preparedness, she eyed her first permanent head coaching position.
“In my fifth year at Ole Miss, I was at a point where I felt like I was ready to be a head coach,” Simmons said about the timing. “I’m a believer that everything happens for a reason. If that doesn’t happen, I don’t have the team I have right now, and we don’t have the success that we have right now.”
That offseason, Simmons succeeded in finding her first head coaching job: Gardner-Webb.
“When the Gardner-Webb position came open, I did research,” she said. “I could tell by watching and looking, they had some really good pieces. A lot of people, my parents now, live in Charlotte, and so it put my family close to my parents and my sister, who was a junior at Gardner-Webb at the time.
“Coming to Gardner-Webb was one of those decisions in my life that just made sense.”
Simmons now had two complete seasons under her head coaching belt and is the midst of gearing up for her third. So far, she has reinvigorated the Runnin’ Bulldogs program, and heading into the 2020 Big South Tournament, Gardner-Webb was one of the hottest teams in the league and with real hopes of securing an auto bid to the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, that opportunity was revoked by the coronavirus, but Alex Simmons and her team have moved on and set their sights on whenever they’re allowed on the court again.
“My goals are to make people understand that Gardner-Webb, yes, it’s a small school, yes, it’s a Christian school, but we compete,” Simmons explained. “We were peaking at the right time, we were doing all the right things at the right time, so everything just felt right. I think now we’re at a point where we can continue to build on top of it.”