CONWAY -- The name is different.
But the buzz is just as strong. Cliff Ellis stormed out of his three-year "sabbatical" from the sidelines when he was announced as the next men's basketball coach at Coastal
Carolina University on Monday.
His zeal for the game and confidence in his abilities are nearly as impressive as his 534 NCAA Division I victories.
He believes he can align the building blocks left from Buzz Peterson's two seasons into something Coastal hasn't had since the early 1990s.
"My vision is to take this program to the top and let
people realize nationally, that Coastal
Carolina is the new kid on the block in college basketball," Ellis said. "And I want my vision, I want my experience, to bring this to the table.''
University President David DeCenzo hopes Ellis' background repeats itself.
Ellis, now 61, reversed the fortunes of South Alabama, Clemson and Auburn during stints at those schools. He left Clemson as the Tigers' all-time leader in coaching victories and later left Auburn second on its coaching list.
While neither Clemson nor Auburn amassed a winning conference record in Ellis'10-year tenures, he led Clemson to its only ACC title (1989-90) and helped Auburn win the SEC crown in 1998-99.
That success proved to be one of the deciding factors in Coastal hiring Ellis over the other four finalists -- former
Kentucky assistant David Hobbs, CCU assistant Jamie Kachmarik, USC Upstate coach Eddie Payne and Florida assistant Lewis Preston.
But DeCenzo's final decision didn't come until after the president did some heavy research on Ellis, specifically the NCAA violations Auburn was slapped with soon after Ellis was fired in 2004.
During the second half of Ellis' time on the Alabama plains, Auburn was investigated by the NCAA and several "frequent contact'' with a Huntsville, Ala., businessman who was, in turn, putting pressure on prospective players.
The NCAA placed the school on two years of probation and lost scholarships and recruiting visits.
Ellis was cleared, but that wasn't good enough for DeCenzo. Coastal's own basketball improprieties in the eagent litmus test.
"'We talked a good bit about it,'' said DeCenzo, who also said a number of Coastal officials investigated the NCAA documents and spoke to officials at Auburn. "I have, as well as several of us, have the actual report. There were no
"We're very confident in what we read and the interpretation of those reports.''
Ellis' no-nonsense approach to another situation at Auburn also bought him some credibility.
After Auburn roared through the 1998-99 season and into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, the team was predicted by several national publications to win the national championship the following season.
The team started that year 21-5 before Ellis was forced to make one of the hardest decisions of his career. Forward Chris Porter, a preseason All-American, admitted taking $2,500 from a sports agent.Ellis ruled Porter ineligible for the final eight games of the season. The Tigers stumbled to a 3-5 record the rest of the season before being bounced from the second round of the NCAA tournament.
"We had been a No. 1 team with him the year before, a No. 1 seed,'' Ellis said. "I took action. Some coaches may not have taken action.''
The coach was fired at Auburn after a 14-14 record in 2003-04, but his name recognition has not faded.
The Coastal players in attendance at Monday's news conference couldn't recite their new coach's basketball records or accomplishments. However, after hearing CCU Athletics Director Warren Koegel's introduction -- which amounted to Ellis' greatest hits list -- the players started to find solace in their near three-week stretch of uncertainty.
Coastal's contract with Ellis makes it unlikely the coach's name will circulate like Peterson's. The five-year deal will pay Ellis $150,000 for the first year, with a 5-percent raise (and any applicable state-merit raises) each year after. The major sticking point of the deal is easily an overwhelming buyout clause set at $1.5 million, a number usually associated with top-tier programs.
"It's a building situation, and that's got my name on it,'' he said. "That's my niche. I want to make a difference.''