Even before Jackie Alexander and Matt Thune began their first day of work as the assistant and associate head coaches of Eastern Kentucky University's women's basketball team they both already had ties to the school.
Alexander, who is a native of Brodhead and was a 1,000-point scorer at Rockcastle County High School, was almost a Colonel herself.
"I was actually recruited by EKU out of high school," Alexander explained. "It's strange how your path circles back around sometimes."
However, Alexander admits that EKU has changed quite a bit since 2010.
"I think EKU is this hidden gem. It has progressed a lot. The athletic facilities are top notch and I think we have all the pieces here to be really great and have some success."
Thune's girlfriend is an EKU graduate.
The pair met in Utah, when Thune was an assistant at Weber State University for three seasons (2015-18).
"It's kind of weird," Thune said with a laugh. "My girlfriend went here and now we are back. She was an athletic trainer here, so I had this pre-existing knowledge of what to expect and knew a lot about EKU even before I started working here."
Those ties will come in handy as both coaches will try to help to rebuild the basketball program under the direction of first-year head coach Samantha Williams.
For Thune, the opportunity to help long-time colleague Williams, was a huge reason he came to EKU.
Thune joins the Colonel program after spending last season as an assistant at Binghamton University, an NCAA Division I institution in Binghamton, New York.
The Indiana-native worked alongside Williams at the University of Louisville from 2012 to 2016.
"We were close when we worked together and we remained in touch over the years," Thune explained. "(Williams) kind of let me know that she was looking at head coaching opportunities and I let her know if she got an opportunity -- I would be intrigued. Working with each other for a long time -- you have a trust factor. I think it's important to have people close to you that you can rely on and trust and I think that was a big part of (Williams) asking me if I wanted to join her staff."
Before joining the Binghamton program, Thune was an assistant at Weber State. He helped WSU to the most wins in program history (23) and a runner-up finish in the Women's Basketball Invitational (WBI) in 2016. In 2018, Weber State advanced to the quarterfinals of the WBI. Thune was the academic coordinator, camp director, social media director and community involvement liaison in addition to his assistant coaching duties.
Thune said he was drawn to basketball at a young age.
"I'm from Indiana and my dad -- he is a die-hard Hoosiers fan. From a young age, that was life. You either watched it or played it. All I have ever known is basketball," Thune explained.
He knew he wanted to become a coach when he was around 11-years-old.
"Just like here, high school basketball in Indiana is very competitive. In seventh grade I actually got cut from the basketball team and I was devastated. My dad asked me why and I told him that I wanted to coach basketball and now I couldn't. I thought if I didn't play -- I could never coach. I actually did end up playing high school basketball ... Luckily, later on I was able to knock down some doors and Louisville women's basketball coach Jeff Walz gave me an opportunity," Thune recalled.
The coach worked in a variety of roles with the University of Louisville basketball program from 2012 to 2015. During the 2014-15 season he was the team's video coordinator. During the summer of 2015, Thune served as the interim assistant coach for recruiting.
"Anyone who has worked for Jeff Walz knows that you learn everything about basketball if you are open to it," Thune said.
The coach said his coaching philosophy was formed not by having great mentors when he was younger, but through bad influences.
"The reason I wanted to coach is because we weren't treated right as players and I wanted to do something different. I grew up in the tough love era of sports and that just doesn't work for every kid," Thune explained.
It's another reason he said Williams will make such a great head coach at EKU.
"You've got to have a coach that is a little bit of a player's coach. She can talk to them all day about basketball, but also about life and they can be comfortable. (I was eager to work with her) knowing how she would interact with the players. Everywhere she has been, she has had success," Thune said.
"We are thrilled to welcome Matt to the EKU family," said Williams said of Thune. "Matt is someone who has worked his way up the ranks with a tremendous work ethic and a willingness to do more than what is asked of him. His basketball knowledge and ability to connect with student-athletes on and off the court will be a great asset to our program."
Alexander's love of basketball was an unlikely fluke in her family.
Neither of her parents played and while she was a standout on the Lady Rockets team in high school -- her twin sister cheered her on from the sidelines as part of the school's cheerleading squad.
Alexander took a more circuitous route to coaching after experiencing what she describes as a major "failure."
During her high school career she played in the Kentucky/Indiana All-Star series in 2010 and was recruited by United State Military Academy.
However, after her freshman year, Alexander transferred from West Point to the University of the Cumberlands where she studied biology.
"I was young and it was a big change of culture and I thought it was a huge mistake. When I left West Point, I actually re-applied because I realized I had made a mistake. All the signs were there that I would get back in and then they reduced the military and I didn't get back in. I was devastated," Alexander explained.
However, while playing basketball for the University of the Cumberlands, Alexander caught the eye of the university's ROTC instructor.
"He knew I went to West Point and he had been on my back my entire sophomore year," Alexander recalled. "I ended up joining and it was the best thing I did in my entire life."
That choice led Alexander to receive a bachelor's degree in biology, with minors in Spanish and military science in 2014. After graduation, she was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant through EKU Army ROTC into the United States Army.
"It might not have been the route I thought I would take, but I found a way to get it done. I ended up being commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant, just as I would, had I stayed at West Point," she explained.
Alexander was an active duty Army officer from 2014 to June of 2017, reaching the rank of captain. She served at Fort Campbell and in Iraq. From February to November 2016, Alexander was the executive officer for Zulu Company.
The coach said, once again, her military career was a surprise to even herself.
"I have no immediate family in the military. If someone had told me my freshman year of high school I was going to be in the military upon my college graduation -- I would've never believed it," Alexander said with a laugh.
Her leadership roles in the military also got Alexander thinking back to her wish of coaching basketball when she was younger.
"My coaches were the most influential people in my life at that time and I think, at that age, you are trying to figure out who you are and what you want to do and they had a great impact on my life and who I became as a person. I wanted every kid I had contact with to have that same positive experience. I think basketball is all about relationships. I was a player that yearned for those relationships from the coaching staff, now I get to be that for someone," Alexander explained.
During the 2017-18 season, Alexander served as the video coordinator at the United States Air Force Academy.
It was there she first met Williams.
"Louisville was there to play the Air Force Academy in 2017 and I met Samantha Williams and gave the team a tour and got to work with her on video," Alexander said.
From there, the coach spent the 2018-19 season as the director of operations at the University of Albany. She also served as an interim assistant coach from August to November 2018.
Again, Williams and Alexander would cross paths.
"I took a job in Albany and saw that Louisville was playing in the Sweet 16 and I knew she had been offered the job at EKU and I shot her an email and hoped that she would respond," Alexander recalled.
"She came up to me and asked, 'So what do you want?' She was a direct communicator -- and I loved that. I am a direct communicator. I felt like the second encounter I had with her was great, I felt like I knew her already. Then she gave me this chance. First impressions are everything. I'm very excited to have the opportunity to learn from someone like Sam. She has a lot of experience and has had a lot of success," Alexander said.
Williams said Alexander's determination and eagerness to take on a challenge made her a great candidate for EKU.
"I wanted people who were excited to be here and eager to work hard. I couldn't be more excited to have one of the best young coaches in the country join our Colonel family," Williams said. "Jackie's attention to detail, work ethic, and personality were exactly what I was looking for. Her Kentucky roots are also something that was important in the process. She is a high-character person that will be a tremendous role model for our young women."
Williams will be adding a third coach to her staff in the next few weeks.
Thune and Alexander said they are ready to get the new Colonels team on the court and work hard on rebuilding the program.
"I think people are going to be surprised the first year," Alexander said. "I hope so, at least. I think it will be a very up-tempo and run-and-gun style that EKU fans can get excited about. We have added some very good, athletic players to the roster... I feel like you can win here. I think that is the message we need to send across to fans and players."
Thune said there will be plenty of new faces for EKU fans to get to know.
"With four returners coming back -- it's like a brand new team. We will be able to mold them and really concentrate on reforming the program and style. I think confidence is a huge part of basketball and I think once the players are comfortable with each other and believe in the changes -- we will have some success," Thune explained.
The Colonels announced last week the addition of five new players to the team for the 2019-20 season.
Menifee County High School all-state forward Emma Hacker was the first recruit under Williams to sign a National Letter of Intent (NLI) with EKU. She is joined by Kynnedy Azubike who will transfer to Eastern after spending the past two seasons at the University of Akron; Qaylia Stanton, a 5-foot-6 guard transferring from Ranger College; I'Liyah Green, a 6-foot-2 center transferring from the University of Cincinnati; and Samari Mowbray, a 6-foot-1 guard transferring from Northern Kentucky University.