Ellis brings Coastal Carolina to Big South lead

Cliff Ellis sat in aging Kimbel Arena, calmly watching Coastal

Carolina’s players divide into two groups – one to shoot free

throws and the other to make sure the balls didn’t rattle about the

permanent seats in the small gym.

“It’s a little different,” chuckled the 64-year-old Ellis.

There are no lavish practice courts or cushy, chartered flights.

Ellis’ office is square with cinderblock walls, barely big enough

for one of his old desks at Clemson or Auburn.

Still, the coach who’s won league championships at South

Alabama, Clemson and Auburn is on the verge of another one just

three years into his latest reclamation project with the

Chants.

If Coastal Carolina (23-5) takes the Big South Conference

tournament title two weeks from now, Ellis would lead a fourth team

to the NCAAs, an elite group that includes Lefty Driesell and Eddie

Sutton, along with Minnesota’s Tubby Smith and Louisville’s Rick

Pitino.

“It would be special,” Ellis says simply.

“That’s why I came here,” he said. “I like to build

things.”

That’s what Ellis has done his entire career – and tried to do

outside of basketball when he was fired by Auburn in 2004 after 10

uneven seasons and an NCAA investigation. Ellis was not implicated

in any of the program’s wrong doing.

Out of coaching, perhaps for good, Ellis made a list of things

he never gotten to do because of coaching’s demands like working on

his dock and visiting Hawaii.

“I hadn’t put a hammer to a nail, never did that,” Ellis said.

“I went on a snow skiing trip.”

The personable Ellis also got a call to be a television analyst.

As he met with former colleagues and attended practices, Ellis

scribbled notes and felt the fire to coach again. Schools came

calling.

“I don’t want to get into who,” he says, adding that none had

the right location, the chance to build from the ground up and not

diminish what Ellis had already accomplished.

“I didn’t want it to be a joke,” he said.

Then Ellis saw former Atlantic Coast Conference rival Bobby

Cremins jump back into coaching at College of Charleston in

2006.

“It’s made me younger,” Cremins counseled his longtime

friend.

Coastal Carolina, seeking a quick replacement in the summer of

2007 when Buzz Peterson left for the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, set

its sights on Ellis. The fit, he said, was perfect.

The Chanticleers hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1993

and had only had two winning seasons since then. Yet, school

administrators already had plans for a Student Recreation and

Convocation Center more than triple the listed capacity of

Coastal’s current home court.

While Ellis downsized his resources, his goals didn’t

change.

“He always tells us that he knows what he’s talking about,”

forward Chad Gray said, smiling. “’I’ve been there at Clemson,

Auburn.”’

Ellis figured it might take five years until Coastal Carolina

could compete for the Big South crown. Seniors Joe Harris, Logan

Johnson and Mario Edwards have made it happen far sooner.

Harris has averaged 15 points a game, Edwards is hitting 42

percent of his 3-pointers and Johnson is one of the team’s most

solid defenders.

Mix in Gray, a transfer from South Carolina, and the Chants were

off and running.

They had a 12-game winning streak this season that tied the

school mark set four years ago. Coastal Carolina’s next victory

ties the school record for wins, established in 1991 when the

school swept the Big South’s regular-season and tournament titles

to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time.

They hold a one-game lead in the Big South with three games –

all at home – remaining.

“We want to knock walls down,” Ellis told his players, “if

you just trust me.”

Ellis is the third coach Johnson’s had since he committed to

Coastal and sees him as just what the school and the program

need.

“The coach is a big thing,” Johnson said. “He has the name,

he’s been in the game a long time. I knew he’d do good things

here.”

Coastal Carolina, with its proximity to the Grand Strand, feels

like home to Ellis, a beach music fan who made a few headlines in

the 1960s with his group, The Villagers.

These days, Ellis hopes the next dance he’s concerned with

involves an invitation to the NCAA tournament.

“I just love that feel of the beach music atmosphere. I love

the water,” Ellis said. “Everything pointed to just doing it

here. And it’s been a great ride.”