Cliff Ellis has been doing this a long time, and we’re not talking about his beach music group, the Villagers, or his ostrich farming in Florida. We are talking about him walking the sideline as a head basketball coach.
The 68-year-old Coastal Carolina coach has been at it so long, there are young coaches who call him for advice, who sidle up next to him at summer camps to ask questions, and who admire him for the 668 wins his teams have amassed at South Alabama, Clemson, Auburn and Coastal Carolina.
For Ellis, that means coming full circle in the coaching profession. He never has forgotten the time a veteran coach took the time at a summer camp in Jacksonville, Fla., to answer every question from a young high school coach who was attempting to find his way with a whistle around his neck.
That legendary coach was John Wooden.
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“There were about three of us (coaches),” Ellis says of that happenstance meeting in 1971. “We sat in the corner with this great man and asked question after question. He just fed us back.”
Perhaps it is because he still likes to exercise his voice for singing, because when he tells anyone what he most remembers about those talks with Wooden, Ellis goes into impersonation mode. Ellis perfectly carries Wooden’s soft tone and staccato delivery.
“Ex-e-cute the fund-a-ment-als,” Ellis says in quoting Wooden, “and ex-e-cute them as quick-ly as poss-i-ble.”
At the time, Ellis says he was teaching his players at Vanguard High in Ocala, Fla., to throw perfect chest passes and easy-to-handle bounce passes. Ellis demanded that the passer’s feet point in a certain direction, and his fingers extend a specific way upon release. He was teaching the “fund-a-ment-als.”
“It hit me that in the real world, if somebody is playing defense, that’s all good and well,” Ellis says. “But if you don’t do that stuff pretty quick, it’s not going to work. It stuck with me.”
When Ellis returned to Ocala, he fired off a hand-written note to Wooden, by then the winner of seven national championships at UCLA with three more to come before his retirement in 1975. Within weeks, Ellis received a return note from Wooden.
“I said, ‘This man is amazing,’ “” Ellis says.
A year later, Ellis became the coach and athletics director at Cumberland (Tenn.) University, and again reached out to Wooden. This time, Ellis said he wanted to learn everything about UCLA’s system. Wooden suggested Ellis drive three hours north to Kentucky and meet with Wooden’s former assistant, Denny Crum, who by then was running the same UCLA system at Louisville.
Following an afternoon of golf when Ellis picked the brain of Crum’s assistant coaches, Ellis met for a Sunday afternoon with Louisville’s head coach. Ellis was prepared to experiment and implement parts of Wooden’s system at Cumberland.
The backbone to Wooden’s system was a three-quarters court press on defense, one in which the Bruins fell back into a man-to-man alignment. Ellis liked that, but he also took a liking to the 1-2-1-1 full-court press he learned while an undergraduate student at Florida State under coach Hugh Durham.
“It’s kind of like, you’ve got two great minds and I know what this one’s thinking, and I know what that one’s thinking,” Ellis says. “Now, I’m going to combine these two things.”
The varying extended defenses became the trademark of Ellis’ teams at every stop. His Cumberland teams went 78-12 in three seasons. His 171 wins at South Alabama remain the most in program history. The same is true at Clemson, where he won 193 games and the program’s only ACC regular-season title in 1990.
At Auburn, his 1999 club won the SEC championship, posted a 29-4 record and reached the NCAA tournament’s round of 16. At the conclusion of that season, Ellis was named winner of the John Wooden Award as the top coach in college basketball.
Ellis extended his friendship with Wooden by spending a day with him during the weekend of the awards ceremony in Salt Lake City. The following season, Ellis’ Auburn team played in the Wooden Classic in Anaheim, Calif., and he once again spent time picking Wooden’s brain on basketball.
The two coaches corresponded periodically for the remainder of Wooden’s life. He died in 2010 at age 99.
Then Ellis received the ultimate accolade for his successful coaching career during Coastal Carolina’s regular-season finale three weeks ago. His team defeated Charleston Southern to push the pupil past the professor on the NCAA all-time coaching win list.
The win was the 665th of Ellis career. Wooden finished with 664.