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October 29, 2013

Simmons stays in family, makes move to Rebels

OXFORD, Miss. -- Following a difficult transition season which saw the Ole Miss women's basketball team win only nine games while being led by an interim head coach, athletics director Ross Bjork hired former Kentucky assistant Matt Insell to turn the program around.

Insell quickly assembled a staff to assist him in his efforts. Among those hired to his staff is former Tennessee forward Alex Simmons. Simmons, a two-time national champion with her home-state Volunteers, has known the Insell family virtually all her life.

Her relationship with the Insells began before high school, as she participated in various camps run by Rick Insell with assistance from his son, Matt. She went on to attend Shelbyville Central High School, where Rick served as head coach, before Simmons began her collegiate career playing for legendary coach Pat Summitt at Tennessee.

"I played for (Rick Insell) for four years. Coach (Rick) Insell has won 10 state championships, but I'm proud to say I'm responsible for three of those," she said with a smile before crediting the "the great players, top Division I players all around me."

She was named a McDonald's All-American and Miss Basketball in Tennessee among other accolades too numerous for her to recall. After Shelbyville Central, she found herself once again the part of championship teams.

""I went to Tennessee and played there four years for Coach Summitt and was part of two national championships there in 2007 and 2008," Simmons said.

Following her playing career at Tennessee, she considered playing professionally. Knee issues coupled with a passion for coaching led her to a accept a graduate assistant position at Kansas for one year before rejoining her former high school coach Rick Insell at MTSU. Now, she finds herself on Matt's staff at Ole Miss.

Choosing to leave MTSU was, "…a very tough decision because that was my first job - my first opportunity to coach in Division I," Simmons said. "You probably couldn't ask for a better situation (than) to coach with your high school coach and someone that has spent so much time with you, and you could give some of the credit for my success.

"I had to take this step in order to try to perfect my craft for what I'm trying to do in my future"

While one may imagine that Simmons' unique situation - being pursued to join the staff of her current employer's son - may have caused unusual and difficult conversations, she said that wasn't the case.

"After the last game we played in the NCAA Tournament, (Matt's offer) was a conversation (between me and Rick) everyday up until I made the decision," she said. "Coach (Rick) Insell was completely honest with me, and I was honest with him with my thoughts and feelings. It wasn't awkward at all since he's a mentor and second father figure to me."

Once Simmons elected to join the younger Insell's staff in April, she set to work evaluating the returning roster. She echoed Matt Insell's thoughts on how well the current talent fits into what the new coaching regime is looking for out of its players.

"I say to this day that those girls, no way they shouldn't have won more than 9 games," Simmons said. "You have (junior forward) Tia Faleru and (senior guards) Valencia McFarland and Diara Moore. All of the returners are so talented," Simmons said. "All they needed was that confidence, and now you're starting to see them bloom into the all-around players (they can be)."

Simmons will continue to work closely with post players as she did at MTSU. She believes her time spent in Murfreesboro has sufficiently prepared her for coaching in the SEC. Once again, she is quick to acknowledge the role Rick Insell played in her development, this time as a coach.

"I prided myself in that job, the job Coach (Rick) Insell allowed me to have because it was my first Division I coaching job, and I was 25 years old. I really took pride in that job and what he allowed me to do," Simmons said. "Obviously, I learned from him throughout my high school, middle school, elementary school days. He really allowed me to delve into the post players and break them down -giving me a hand in everything that we were doing, not just the recruiting aspect."

The new staff at Ole Miss has a tall task in front of it as it tries to return the Rebels to the NCAA Tournament. Simmons is hoping to see improvement from game to game over the course of the upcoming season.

"Every game they pick up their level of play - everyday we see some type of improvement. Every game, whatever it might be, they pick up their confidence, whether it be Valencia's three-point percentage going up or Tia and her around the basket moves - just seeing increments of improvement every game," Simmons said. "It's a long season, so if that keeps going up and up and up, once we get to March and March Madness, you never know what's going to happen."

The Ole Miss women's basketball season begins Nov. 3 with an exhibition game against Christian Brothers before its regular season opener against Jacksonville State on Nov. 8.

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