For someone who was a musician in college, Cliff Ellis can still cut a rug at age 68.
Yes, that’s ‘cut a rug’ as in dancing. But not necessarily the dancing associated with music. Try the Big Dance, March Madness, NCAA Tournament.
Forty years after coaching Cumberland Junior College to the Tennessee state championship, Ellis finally won another conference championship last Sunday when his Coastal Carolina Chanticleers captured the Big South title, ensuring that their name will be called during my favorite hour of the sports calendar – the NCAA Tournament Selection Show early Sunday evening/late Sunday afternoon.
Not that Ellis hasn’t been successful in the ensuing four decades – eight NCAA appearances [before the upcoming tournament], four regular-season conference championships, five league coach of the year awards.
He is the winningest coach in the history of the South Alabama and Clemson programs and coached Auburn to a school and state of Alabama-record 29 victories in a season.
Auburn could use him now as two coaches have failed since he was fired by the school a decade ago as the program faced NCAA sanctions for recruiting violations by assistant coaches. Ellis was not named in any NCAA investigation.
After leaving Auburn, Ellis worked as a TV analyst.
As successful as he’s been in basketball, his life isn’t consumed by the game. The lead singer for a pop/beach music group “The Villagers” while an undergrad at Florida State [some of their songs can be heard on YouTube, Ellis has revived his singing career somewhat in the past couple of decades. He has also written three books, two on basketball and an autobiography.
But he’s never forgotten the school whose president Ernest Stockton hired him away from the high school ranks in 1972 while spending the summer at Middle Tennessee State working on his graduate degree. His winter job was teaching and coaching at a high school in his native Florida Panhandle.
Coaching in the bandbox Dawghouse, now converted into classrooms and enclosed inside Labry Hall, he led the fast-breaking Bulldogs to a 78-12 record over three seasons, including the magical 1973-74 state championship team, which rivals Lonnie Thompson’s 2004 group as the school’s best-ever.
He regularly sneaks into Lebanon to visit old friends, none closer than his Bulldog right-hand man Boone Swain. I ran into Boone at a restaurant last Sunday hours after Ellis’ Chanticleers won the Big South tournament. He said Cliff ate in this establishment about 90 percent of the time when he lived here.
I first met Cliff through another of his Cumberland connections, the late Dr. Joe Bryant. I was reacquainted with him a few years ago when his Bulldog players held a reunion in town.
When one of his Bulldog players, Randy Vanatta, was killed in an auto accident almost a year ago, Ellis came to town for the visitation.
Don’t be surprised if he makes another visit to the Cedar City soon. But first, he’ll go dancing with his team.