Coastal Carolina Coach Cliff Ellis can’t explain it, so he just begins to tell the story.
The Chanticleers had just won the Big South tournament championship, and reporters began asking what was wrong. At a loss for words, Ellis had a glazed look on his face. An occasion like this would usually prompt a song, or perhaps even a dance, from a man who, at various points in life, has called himself a basketball coach, a musician, an author and an ostrich farmer.
The 68-year-old had been to the NCAA tournament before — eight times, in fact — but never had an out-of-body experience quite like this.
“It was like a CinemaScope reel in front of me,” Ellis said over the phone this week. “I kept seeing players’ faces in front of me from South Alabama, from Clemson, the Auburn days and even here. It was like a flashback. It was like they were still playing.”
Ellis has been in a reflective mood ever since. On Friday, when No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina takes on No. 1 Virginia in an East Region first-round matchup in Raleigh, N.C., he will be just the 10th coach to lead four programs to the NCAA tournament.
This journey started close to 40 years and 668 wins ago at South Alabama, when he was the youngest head coach in the country along with a guy named Mike Krzyzewski, then at Army. Upon arriving at Clemson in 1984, in the heyday of the ACC, he was twice named the conference’s coach of the year and led the Tigers to the Sweet 16. He did the same at Auburn from 1994 to 2004.
That could’ve been it. But then Coastal Carolina came calling in 2007, and following a phone conversation with former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins — in the middle of his own career reinvention at the College of Charleston — Ellis found himself with another rebuilding project.
Before this season, the Chanticleers had qualified for the NCAA tournament just twice, in 1991 and 1993.
“I did 20 years at the highest level and when you see those guys making the money, does it get you? Yeah,” Ellis said. “But I’m a program-builder . . . the tougher, the better.”
It helped he’d be moving to Myrtle Beach, S.C., where he has a house on the Atlantic Ocean, traps his own crabs, catches his own fish, breaks out his kayaks for exercise and watches the sunset every day he can.
Slowly but surely, the Chanticleers worked their way up the Big South standings, winning regular season titles in 2010 and 2011. This year’s team, though, caught Ellis by surprise. They were young, and even though he got an inkling of what was to come in close losses to Mississippi and Minnesota during nonconference play, Coastal Carolina had just a 7-8 record after a loss at Charleston Southern on Jan. 3 to open league play.
“I don’t think anybody in August or November or January saw this coming,” Ellis said. “But when it broke for them, it all started to come together.”
Ellis’s story isn’t all fairy tale, though. Both Clemson and Auburn were put on NCAA probation after he left because some of his players received illegal benefits. Ellis was not implicated in either investigation. Even at Coastal Carolina, he had to endure an internal investigation into his recruiting practices in 2011. Nothing came of it, and Ellis insists any controversy was “overblown.”
“If you’re in this business for 40 years, you’re going to take some shots. You got to be able to withstand the shots. That’s just what’s gonna happen,” he said. “I don’t know of anybody who hasn’t had a speeding ticket.”
That roll-with-the-punches attitude has worked wonders this year on a team with a freshman — guard Elijah Wilson — as its leading scorer.
Ellis regales his players with stories about the time he went on stage with Roy Orbison or the day he found himself in a recording studio with Etta James or when he and a friend invested in the ostrich-meat business 20 years ago. He had one song — “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” released in 1991 as part of an album by Cliff Ellis and the EBS All-Star Blues Band — reach No. 13 on the beach music charts.
His college band, The Villagers, recorded new music this past summer to celebrate their 50th anniversary, and Ellis sometimes plays the songs on the team bus to and from games. Guard Warren Gillus said the Coastal Carolina bookstore began selling some of his albums this week.
“You wouldn’t think it’s him until he told you it’s him,” said Gillus, who remembered Ellis’s recruiting pitch included talk of a flamingo farm. “He’s got a good voice.”
So it only made sense that on Selection Sunday, after learning of Coastal Carolina’s fate, the occasion called for a performance. Ellis began crooning “Dancing in the Moonlight” by King Harvest.
Before long, he had dragged a television reporter and the entire team up on stage and began doing “The Shag,” the official dance of South Carolina.
“Dancing in the moonlight at the Big Dance . . . I’m singing it and I’m loving it,” Ellis said. “Guys my age, there’s only a few of us left. We’ve still got a little left in the tank.”