Coaching was still in his blood

Some may wonder why Coastal Carolina would hire 61-year-old Cliff Ellis, who hasn't been on the sidelines except as a TV color analyst since 2004, to take over its basketball program.

Cliff Ellis explained why Monday morning, when he told the Myrtle Beach Sun News the goal is to "make it to the NCAA tournament."

And who better among the five finalists for the job than Ellis to try and do that. Ellis beat out Coastal assistant Jamie Kachmarik, former Alabama head coach David Hobbs, Florida assistant Lewis Preston and USC-Upstate head coach Eddie Payne for the job. Ellis has made eight trips to the NCAA Tournament, all as a head coach, and not one of the other four could match that success.

And the taste of that success, the thrill of getting into the NCAA Tournament was what apparently drew Ellis back to the sidelines at an age when most men are thinking about retirement.

But I had the chance to talk to Ellis during the 2006 season, when he came to Rock Hill to work a Winthrop game. He still had that easy-going smile and obviously knew a lot about the Eagles. He was so prepared he could have coached that day.

And it was obvious coaching was still in his blood.

"Do you miss it?" I asked.

"Yeah, I do," he said. "Wouldn't mind doing it again under the right circumstances."

Ellis is simply one of those men who can't turn away from coaching, loves the competitiveness of it, the thrill of winning, even the disappointment of losing.

Even the bad memories make a coach want to get back for one more shot. Ellis had one of the more gut ripping losses you'd could ever imagine in the NCAA Tournament.

Ellis said it took him 10 years to watch the replay of the 1990 East Regional semifinal game against Connecticut, even though it seems ESPN Classic replays the game every year when March Madness rolls around.

Ellis was coaching Clemson, had just won the school's one and to date only ACC regular season title and had made the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16. With Dale Davis and Elden Campbell, the Tigers had two dominant big men who would go on to productive careers in the NBA.

Although the Tigers would have had to play Duke in the regional final, that wasn't a big deal. Clemson had split with the Blue Devils during the regular season and had beaten them in the game that decided the regular season title.

The Tigers could almost smell the Final Four.

But the Huskies had Tate George and a clock operator who might have been just a shade slow on the trigger.

With the Tigers ahead 70-69 and one second showing on the scoreboard at the New Jersey Meadowlands, Scott Burrell threw a length of the court pass. Somehow, George, camped along the baseline, leaped, caught the ball, came down, went back up and got off the game-winning shot -- with two-tenths of a second to spare.

Ellis finally brought himself to watch the game, with a stop watch in hand. On his clock, George didn't get the shot off.

In an ironic twist, Christian Laettner hit a last-second shot to beat the Huskies two nights later to reach the Final Four.

In February of 1994, after he had announced he would be leaving Clemson when the season ended, I had a long interview with Ellis in his Clemson office. I was writing a profile of Ellis leading into the Tigers' game against No. 2 ranked North Carolina. I asked if he'd gone back to look at the UConn tape. He hadn't. Didn't want to. I also asked if he ever thought what might have changed had Clemson won that game. He wasn't sure but he did say he wished the Tigers could have gotten one more shot at Duke.

A couple of days later, the Tigers knocked off the Tar Heels, proving once again the unassuming Ellis could coach.

There's no doubting his success at South Alabama, Clemson and Auburn, schools where "basketball and success" haven't been uttered in the same sentence very often.

After nine seasons at South Alabama, he left as the school's winningest coach (171-84). When he got there, university administrators were contemplating dropping the program to NCAA Division II. Four years later, the Jaguars were in the NCAA Tournament and two seasons after that ranked in the top 10.

In 10 years at Clemson, Ellis became the school's winningest coach (177-28). He's the only Clemson coach to be voted ACC Coach of the Year (1987, 1990).

At Auburn, he finished No. 2 on the wins list (186-125), finishing ahead of Auburn legend Sonny Smith. His 1999 team finished was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and finished No. 4 in the final polls.

That kind of success might be out of Coastal's reach, but getting to the NCAA Tournment isn't.

Coastal officials hoped Buzz Peterson would get the Chants to that NCAA promised land. He came within a basket of doing that in 2006, losing to Winthrop on a last-second shot. Peterson finished 15-15 last year and decided working for his buddy Michael Jordan and the Charlotte Bobcats was better than trying to beat Winthrop every winter.

Peterson was supposed to generate interest in building that new basketball arena, too, but right now that remains nothing more than some beautiful plans on the drawing board.

Coastal needed someone to help spark the interest in that project. Ellis, a name in South Carolina, can perhaps fill that void. Neither Hobbs, Kachmarik, Payne nor Preston would have brought the same name recognition.

But make no mistake, those eight NCAA Tournament appearances next to Ellis' name are the bottom line in this deal. Coastal Carolina wants to get there.

Ellis thinks he still knows how to find the way.