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Texas women's associate head coach Elena Lovato just can't quit the Longhorns — or Vic Schaefer

Hannah Williford
Austin American-Statesman
Texas head coach Vic Schaefer first hired Elena Lovato in 2014 at Mississippi State. At UT in 2020, she was instrumental in recruiting freshmen Rori Harmon, Aaliyah Moore and Kyndall Hunter. After taking this past year off, Lovato has returned to the Texas program.

In her first season with Texas, associate head coach Elena Lovato recruited freshmen Rori Harmon, Aaliyah Moore and Kyndall Hunter through the lens of her computer camera.

The pandemic shut down the NCAA's typical college visit process, making Lovato's job as UT women's basketball recruiting director significantly more difficult.

Those freshmen knew her only from the shoulders up on their screens, but when UT head coach Vic Shaefer announced to them that Lovato was coming back to the program after having left for a year, they erupted in cheers and made an exuberant FaceTime call to Lovato in celebration.

“It made my heart explode,” Lovato said.

Lovato, 42, left UT after the 2020-21 season to spend time with her father, who was living alone during the pandemic. She stopped coaching for the year, instead taking a 9-to-5 job in Albuquerque, N.M., so she could spend more time at home.

“I felt like I needed to just give up my career and go make sure my dad was OK and enjoy his golden years,” she said.

But Lovato had not quite left Texas behind.

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She said she watched the Longhorns from her house with her dad and texted with her freshman recruits' parents as the players made their names on the court. A year later, with her dad now settled, Lovato started her search for coaching jobs again.

When the job opened at Texas, Lovato chose Schaefer for the fourth time in her career.

Elena Lovato, left, was recently named associate head coach by Texas' Vic Schaefer. It was the fourth time he had hired her — twice at Mississippi State and now twice at UT.

Schaefer said one of the reasons he and Lovato have continued to work together is that both place an emphasis on family. Early in his career, Schaefer also took a step back from coaching to watch over his mother. 

"There's just a real level of comfortability for me and trust that I have with her in every aspect of our program," Schaefer said. "If she has to make (a decision) when I'm not around, I know she's going to make the one that I would have made."

Schaefer and Lovato began coaching together in 2014 at Mississippi State, which went 27-7 that season. Lovato left for two years to serve as head coach at Arkansas-Fort Smith but returned to the Bulldogs in 2018. And when Schaefer left Mississippi State for Texas two years ago, she left with him.

“Obviously, I keep coming back to him,” Lovato said. “I know that he truly does care about me. Both times I left him, it was because of family issues … and he understood, and he was willing to bring me back both times … so I admire him for understanding and providing opportunities after things get better.”

This time, Lovato’s experience at Texas will be different. In her first season with the Longhorns, interaction with players was limited due to COVID-19 precautions, so she would go to the gym early to help rebound for them as a form of bonding time, and she would stay late in the training room. But she said it was hard to make that connection with the players beyond just being their coaches.

“That group truly didn’t get to know us as the staff who I know,” Lovato said. “We want to be there for them off the court as well, and we were robbed of that because of COVID.”

Over the past few weeks, Lovato has finally gotten the chance to build those relationships, seeing players' facial expressions and exchanging hugs. Caring for players has been a longtime priority for Lovato, who said finding that relationship with her own coaches helped shape her as a player. 

"She's a relationship person," Schaefer said. "She has tremendous relationships with our players. They know they can count on her on and off the floor any time." 

Associate head coach Elena Lovato watches a Longhorns practice. “I just want to make sure they know that I do care,” she said. “That it’s coming from my heart when I coach them hard.”

As a player, Lovato spent half of her college career at West Texas A&M under head coach Bob Schneider. She said she respected him greatly but also felt intimidated by him.

“Coach Schneider was an amazing coach, but … I was so afraid of that man,” she said. “I didn’t even want to walk by his office and have him see me and call me in there.”

After two years, she transferred to Missouri Southern State. She said she was persuaded to go there by the connection former head coach Amy Townsend had established with her during recruiting. While Lovato described both situations as positive experiences, she said Townsend's connection helped her play to the best of her ability. She wants that for the Longhorns, too.

“I just want to make sure they know that I do care,” Lovato said. “That it’s coming from my heart when I coach them hard.”

Next year, Lovato will help lead a team coming off a Big 12 championship and a second consecutive Elite Eight appearance through a season of high expectations. She said she wants her players to know that there will be a challenge ahead for the team to find success.

“I think more than anything, I want them to be able to embrace the uncomfortableness of it,” Lovato said. “The self-discipline and the commitment level it takes to be good at anything in life.”