When Don Hogan heard that his former boss Cliff Ellis was seriously considering a return to coaching eight years ago and in talks for the open position at Coastal Carolina, he wasn’t surprised in the least.
Not even that after successful runs at power conference schools like Clemson and Auburn, Ellis was now ready to start another chapter late in his career with a Chanticleers program that had posted just one winning season in the previous 13 years and that played in as unappealing a venue as any team in college basketball.
“Coach is like most basketball lifers,” said Hogan, who has been Ellis’ top assistant for the last six seasons with the Chants. “It’s really not about the job; it’s kind of what you are and you do what you do. It didn’t surprise me at all.”
And now eight seasons later, Ellis has not only transformed the Chants from afterthought to Big South Conference power, but all the while he continues to augment an already full resume and his own legacy in the game.
Ellis will lead No. 16-seeded Coastal Carolina against No. 1 Wisconsin on Friday night at CenturyLink Center as the program makes its first ever back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances.
He was already one of just 12 coaches to lead four different schools to the NCAA tournament – having also done it with South Alabama, Clemson and Auburn – and now he’s one of just four coaches to do it twice at four schools, along with Tubby Smith, Jim Harrick and current Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger (who has accomplished the feat at five programs).
Meanwhile, Ellis made yet more history this season in becoming the first coach to win at least 150 games at four different Division I programs. Lefty Driesell, most notable for his success at Maryland, is the only other coach to even win 100 at four schools.
Overall, Ellis is ninth among active Division I head coaches with 692 career wins, and at age 69, he continues to reiterate that he’s not even thinking about the end just yet.
As for all that historical stuff and legacy and whatnot, well, he’d rather save that for another time too.
“We’re not done. We’ve still got work to do. As long as my health’s good, I’m all in,” he said this week. “… Right now we’re in the present and it’s going extremely well. I’m just proud of where the program is right now. I don’t have to have the ACC or the SEC to make me happy. It’s to me about teaching. It’s about building something and making it happen, and as long as everybody’s on the same page, I’m good. …
“Right now everything is in great shape.”
Ellis didn’t seem to want to indulge much talk about what this final chapter of his career has meant to his stature in the game, saying it’s more about the players and his pride in what they’ve accomplished.
He’d rather talk about what the exposure of playing in the NCAA tournament and on national television has meant to the university, to the area.
“For me, in the autumn of your career, it’s all about the kids and it’s all about building a program and building it to the point where it’s something you want people to be proud of,” he said. “… To see this program being built to something, it makes me feel good because these guys have done a lot for this university. But not just for the university, they’ve done a lot for the community.”
And there’s no doubt about any of that.
Coastal Carolina had waited 21 years to make it back to the Big Dance prior to breaking through last year, and now the Chants are here again. Now instead of asking what a Chanticleer is, people are talking about how Ellis’ team put a real scare into No. 1 seed Virginia last year, leading into the second half before the Cavaliers pulled away down the stretch.
But there is also something to be said for Ellis’ gamble in taking on this cause in the first place – settling into a cramped, concrete-walled, windowless office inside dinky 1,039-seat Kimbel Arena eight years ago to begin the challenge of turning potential into payoff – and what it’s meant to be the architect .
Really, it has been the perfect bookend to a 40-plus year career that took off when he got his first Division I coaching job at South Alabama in 1975 and first began to establish himself as a program builder.
It’s something fans should appreciate, Coastal Carolina athletics director Matt Hogue said.
“I think it is overlooked sometimes because when you analyze the numbers, when you analyze what his career has meant in totality, it’s pretty impressive,” Hogue said. “A couple of the things that are difficult, I think, in this business for anybody, whether it’s a coach or an administrator, is to be able to have consistency and longevity. And to be good during that period, and that’s what he’s been able to accomplish – to do it well at so many different places for so long.
“We’re talking about somebody whose total wins by the time he’s finished coaching may be over 800 wins. How many folks have done that? It’s pretty impressive that we’ve been fortunate to have him leading our program.”
Ellis’ latest four-year contract with Coastal Carolina expires after the 2017-18 season, but he’s given no indication that he’s planning for that to be the end.
And Hogue said, that’s really the coach’s decision at this point.
“He’s someone that because of the career that he’s cast and the respect that not only I have but everyone has for his career, he’s going to give you more of a feel for where he stands,” Hogue said. “We’re going to allow him that leeway. I think that’s something he’s earned.”
Said Hogan, who played for Ellis at South Alabama and later worked on his staffs there and at Clemson before rejoining him in Conway, “I think he’ll be like [former St. John’s coach] Lou Carnesecca and some of those guys. I mean, I think you’ll have to take him kicking and screaming. I don’t see him [ready to retire]. And that’s how we approach it with recruits. I think he signed a four-year contract, and I think there will be another contract after that, if you ask me.”
Ellis’ counterpart Friday night, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, is one of only eight active Division I head coaches with more wins, including his 350-plus victories at Division II Wisconsin-Platteville.
The two spoke this week of their mutual respect.
“He loves the game, he’s a teacher. A coach is a coach,” Ryan said. “You can be at one place, go to another, do your thing. He’s been able to put good teams [on the floor] no matter where he was coaching. So he’s my kind of guy. And not because we’re about the same age. He’s a teacher, he’s a coach, he loves the gym.”
As for reflection and perspective, Hogan said that will come in due time for Ellis. He’s still focused on the day-to-day and what’s next in what is shaping up as the most successful era of Coastal Carolina basketball.
“I’m sure like most people, I mean, when it’s over, when it’s done ... I’m sure he’ll take great satisfaction in what this team was able to accomplish,” Hogan said.
“I think it’s all gravy now. I mean last year was just a great accomplishment to win the conference tournament and get the fourth school that he’s been at to the tournament. Now he’s just adding to the legacy.”