CHAMPAIGN – Jillian Ellis had a feeling Illinois would lose a women's soccer coach to another school sometime soon.
She never thought it would be her, though.
"I wanted (assistant) Tricia (Taliaferro) to leave Illinois and be a great head coach," Ellis said. "The way it's transpired, she's going to stay here and be a great head coach."
Ellis' right-hand woman got her shot this week when Illinois' first soccer coach left unexpectedly to take over at UCLA. The news of Ellis' departure, after two seasons on the job, threw Illini players for a loop.
"When I first heard it, there's a lot of emotions," senior midfielder Kelly Buszkiewicz said. "I was surprised, of course. Had no idea it was coming. I don't know the whole story, but I'm sure if Jill accepted a job out there, it's got to be for a good reason."
Ellis, who wrote each of her former players Thursday, called it "the hardest decision of my life."
She first heard about the job last month while coaching the United States' 21-and-under national team in Mexico. Two Bruins were on the squad, and they told her about the opening, created when UCLA's Todd Saldana moved across campus to coach the men.
"When you hear about a job like that, you're naturally curious," Ellis said.
But after getting wind that the Bruins had offered Duke's Bill Hempen and talked to Santa Clara's Jerry Smith – who have a combined seven NCAA Final Four appearances between them – the 32-year-old Ellis figured she didn't stand a chance.
Not with two years of head coaching experience on her resume.
Then, while vacationing in Virginia last week, she got a call from UCLA associate athletic director Betsy Stephenson, who invited her to come out for a visit.
A few days later, the deal was sealed.
"I think I was just ready for another challenge, perhaps," Ellis said. "I was very happy here (at Illinois). It's hard to explain why. It was just more of a feeling than anything else."
For Ellis, one of the main attractions of UCLA was the area's love for soccer.
Perhaps you heard about that little match LA hosted Saturday before 90,000-plus. Of the 20 players on Team USA's World Cup roster, seven hail from the Golden State.
"California is an incredible hotbed for soccer," Ellis said.
California kids helped lead UCLA to back-to-back Pac-10 titles the last two seasons. Now it's up to Ellis to take the Bruins to the next level as the program enters its seventh season.
"We're confident she will not only continue but strengthen the great tradition of UCLA soccer," athletic director Peter Dalis said.
Conference championships don't cut it at UCLA, which has won more NCAA team titles (77) than any school in the nation, including three in men's soccer.
"I mean, they said in my interview, 'We want to win national championships,' " Ellis said. "They have pretty high expectations, but they've proven themselves to be a quality school in that regard."
Ellis, who'll go house-hunting in Los Angeles this week, becomes the first UI coach to leave for another school since Mike Hebert took the Minnesota volleyball job in December 1995. Athletic director Ron Guenther didn't let her go easily, Ellis said, making a counter offer after UCLA presented its package.
"Ron expressed to me that he was disappointed he was losing me, but he was very professional, too," Ellis said. "It's like when a player transfers. You can't help but take it a little personally, but you can also be professional about it. I've greatly appreciated that."
The timing of the move isn't the best – Illinois' opener is less than seven weeks away – but Ellis leaves her old program in good shape. Illinois went 12-8 and made the eight-team Big Ten tournament in its second year in Division I, and loses just one senior (Sarah Aberle) from the lineup.
Buszkiewicz, the program's first All-Big Ten pick, is back along with last year's team offensive and defensive MVPs (Emily Brown, Heidi Holtzman).
But the most important returnee of them all, Buszkiewicz says, is the 26-year-old Taliaferro, who was more of a co-coach than an assistant the last two years. Ellis has been grooming her to be a head coach, letting her in on everything from budget meetings to scouting reports.
"Trish is just awesome. All the players love her," Buszkiewicz said. "Being so young, people might think that's a negative, but she knows what it's like to play college soccer. She played at a Top 20 program at Maryland. She knows all the ins and outs of the game."