Maybe no one is watching Utah’s high-flying, No. 8-ranked women’s basketball team more closely than Elaine Elliott. “I am just loving this ride,” she says. Elliott is … wait, do we really have to explain who Elliott is?

Let’s take a 30-second timeout: Elliott is the winningest in-state college basketball coach, man or woman, ever to stalk the court. She was winning women’s basketball games before winning women’s basketball games was cool. She was so good at what she did, that after she retired, the Utes immediately did a four-year nosedive. After eight years under Lynne Roberts, they’re back again to the level of Elliott’s teams, in a big way. The No. 8-ranked, 27-4 Utes will meet LSU in the Sweet 16 Friday.

Anyway, where were we? To give the Utes a big sendoff at the outset of the NCAA Tournament, the school produced a video montage to show the team. They asked Elliott to participate. On the video, she dared the team to do better than her own team did 17 years ago. Later, Roberts told Elliott that her players saw her video challenge and “erupted.”

“She said the players ate it up,” says Elliott. “They took it the way I meant it — and I really meant it.”

It’s a big dare. Elliott’s 2005-06 team came this close to advancing to the Final Four.

Elliott casts a long shadow over the Utah program. She became an assistant coach at Utah at the age of 23 and a head coach at 27 — when she was only a few years older than her players. She went on to compile a record of 582-234, coaching and winning more games than any in-state coach ever. She coached a whopping 816 games, and yet only two coaches — Stew Morrill and Rick Majerus — had higher winning percentages (just barely). She won 71.3% of her games.

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In 27 years as a head coach at Utah, Elliott collected 26 winning seasons, 20 20-win seasons and 15 NCAA Tournament berths. She had two seasons that stand above the rest. During the 2000-01 season, her team finished with a 28-4 record, which is still the winningest season in school history, and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Five years later, the Utes were 27-7 and became the first team from the Mountain West Conference to advance to the Elite Eight.

After beating Middle Tennessee State, Arizona State and Boston College in the first three rounds of the 2006 tournament, the Utes met Maryland in the Region finals. Trailing 63-62 with 7.8 seconds left, Shona Thorburn went to the free-throw line with a chance to give the Utes the lead. She missed the first shot and made the second, tying the game. The game went to overtime and the Utes lost. They had come within one free throw of beating the eventual national champion and advancing to the Final Four.

“One free throw,” says Elliott. “That was an amazingly fun and productive run. We were so close.”

Elliott’s sustained success attracted offers to coach from other schools, but she never took the bait.

“I loved everything about where I was,” she says. “I love loyalty. It means a lot to me. I’m not a person who thinks the grass is always greener somewhere else. I found a way to be successful here. We faced the realities of the mid-college programs and we used them to our advantage. We believed we could win even without the higher levels of support and status. It was a motivating thing for me. I’m proud of what we did.”

University of Utah women’s basketball coach, Elaine Elliott, poses in front of her 500th career win banner at the Huntsman Center. | Michael Brandy, Deseret News

Elliott’s influence on the team has come full circle. One of the starting guards on this year’s team is Kennady McQueen. Her mother Melanee played for Elliott’s teams. “Kennady is a spitfire just like her mother,” says the coach.

In 2010, at the age of 55, Elliott took a leave of absence to consider retirement, and a year later she officially retired, but not really. She continued to coach. She gave up the prestige and money of working as a head coach at a major university to serve as an assistant coach at much smaller schools — Westminster College, Salt Lake Community College, Cal-Fullerton and Weber State, three of them working under her own former assistants.

“I was helping on the floor, doing things that didn’t make me nervous and that I didn’t have to stress over,” she says. “It was hard to just step away. I loved so many pieces of coaching. I grabbed those pieces.”

In all, she coached 39 years. Now she is fully retired and still living in the Salt Lake area. She watches Utes games in person and on TV. “I can never watch basketball games like fans do,” she says. “I watch analytically. At the same time, I always want someone to win.”

That includes the Utes. Elliott cheers for them, perhaps able to enjoy it more now that she doesn’t have the stress of the head coaching job. That belongs to Roberts, who has taken the Utes to the NCAA Tournament two consecutive years.

“We converse some,” says Elliott. “We stay in touch by texting. I like to show my support. Everyone I know around the program that I’m in contact with is over the moon (about this year’s team). Lynne doesn’t need my help. What I give her is my support, the pride I have in all the good that’s happening in Utah. All of us are elevated when they’re successful …  I’m just as proud of anything they can get done with this team. This team is legit.”

Winningest in-state college basketball coaches:

Coach, school — Won-lost — Win% — Years

Elaine Elliott, Utah — 582-234 — .713 — 27

Jeff Judkins, BYU — 456-204 — .691 — 21

Stew Morrill, Utah State — 402-156 — .720 — 17

Vadal Peterson, Utah — 385-230 — .626 — 26

Stan Watts, BYU — 371-254 — .594 — 23

Jack Gardner, Utah — 339-154 — .688 — 18

Rick Majerus, Utah — 323-95 — .773 — 15

Randy Rahe, Weber State — 316-191 — .623 — 17

Dave Rose, BYU — 301-131 — .697 — 14