Jessica Keller loves competition, but that’s not a surprising trait for a coach who has reached the Big Ten Conference level.
The new Nebraska women’s basketball assistant coach’s competitive fire was born out of necessity. Keller had to be driven to motivate her players during coaching stops at the NAIA, NCAA Division II and Division I levels.
That desire to compete and grind through long practices and seasons dates back to her youth in Belle, Missouri, a town of about 1,200 people.
In high school, Keller was a two-sport athlete — in the same season. Softball and volleyball were both played during the fall, and Keller played both. That meant having either a softball game or volleyball match most days except for Wednesday when games weren’t allowed.
“So it would be a 6 am practice, school, and then an after-school practice,” Keller said. “And then if we had a game in one sport we had a lighter practice in the morning. It was just the way it was in small town. Almost everyone on the softball team played volleyball.”
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She also played basketball and ran track at her high school, where her graduating class had 56 students. Her father was the high school principal at the school, her mom a teacher.
Keller was officially added to Nebraska’s coaching staff on June 6, replacing Chuck Love after Love and the program parted ways to end a lengthy suspension dating back to February.
Keller’s addition is the first time in head coach Amy Williams’ seven seasons at Nebraska that the Huskers will have a new assistant on the sideline. The team’s other assistants, Tom Goehle and Tandem Mays, came with Williams from South Dakota.
Keller will be involved with many areas of the programs, and as a former head coach who has worked with several programs, she is expected to be a great resource for Williams.
Williams is also anticipating Keller to do a lot of work on the recruiting trail, a necessity to keep up with other Big Ten programs such as Maryland, Ohio State and Iowa. Williams doesn’t have a recruiting coordinator like some programs do. Goehle handles a lot of the logistics in recruiting, while Keller will likely be working the phones and on the road a lot. Her first recruiting trip for the Huskers will come next month.
When Williams sets out to hire a new coach, she sought a “beat-the-path recruiter” who will put in the work to develop relationships with prospects.
On the practice court, Keller will work in a director of player development role, meaning she’ll work with all positions. Goehle will coach the posts, and Mays the guards. When Goehle or Mays is on the road recruiting, Keller will be able to step in and coach their position group seamlessly.
Keller is used to juggling many tasks at once. That includes something many coaches at the lower levels of college sports can relate to — teaching a class, in addition to coaching. When she was the head coach at Columbia (Mo.) College, Keller had to teach one semester each year.
Fittingly, she taught a Theory of Coaching class.
“It was a little bit of a balancing act in the spring when I was trying to prepare for postseason and prepare for 8 am class and grading papers,” Keller said. “But it was great perspective to talk to other young students who wanted to do what I got to do every day.”
Williams has a similar story, having been required to teach a math class when she was the head coach at Rogers State in Oklahoma.
Keller said she’s had several big breaks that got her on the path to Lincoln. After being a graduate assistant coach at Quincy University in Illinois, where she played basketball, her first full-time job was at Minnesota State, which had won a Division II national championship a few years earlier. Keller worked for two coaches there, the second being Emilee Thiesse, who is Williams’ sister.
Keller’s other key experiences included being hired as a first-time head coach at the age of 27 at Columbia, and then getting her first NCAA Division I job at Illinois State, where she coached the past five seasons.
Williams spoke with several people who had worked with Keller at her previous stops, including her athletic director at Columbia.
“He’s been a men’s basketball coach for 20 years, and he said he just wanted to sit in her practices and watch and learn from the way she taught her team,” Williams said.
Keller has known Williams for about 10 years through working with Williams’ sister. Mankato and South Dakota would play a scrimmage each season.
“I’ve been able to talk to (Williams) on the recruiting trail and get to know her staff and just had a ton of admiration for how she does things, how she communicates, how she leads and the success that’s followed her everywhere, Keller said.
How long did she wait to accept the job?
“Until she finished the sentence,” Keller said.