March Madness: An 'out-of-body experience' for Coastal Carolina coach

A strange thing happened to Cliff Ellis in the minutes after the Coastal Carolina men’s basketball team earned an NCAA tournament berth with Sunday’s victory in the Big South tournament.

Emotion welled up in the coach and, for a moment, the past seemed to come alive.

“It was a flashback,” Ellis said in a telephone interview. “It was an out-of-body experience.”

He thought of the three other schools -- Auburn, Clemson and South Alabama -- he’s led to the NCAA tournament. He thought of players he coached, from Elden Campbell to Horace Grant. He thought about meeting John Wooden for the first time at a Florida coaching clinic in the 1970s. He thought about the career that started as an assistant coach at Ruckel Middle School in Niceville, Fla.

“It was like CinemaScope,” Ellis said. “It was like a reel running fast. I couldn’t help but think this was for them.”

That meant all the men who played for the 68-year-old coach over a career that includes 665 Division I-A victories. The years of effort seemed to coalesce in this Coastal Carolina team that hasn’t been to the tournament in 21 years. Truth be told, Ellis expected another rebuilding year at the Conway, S.C., school.

“A lot of people like to go out and play golf,” Ellis said. “I like to teach kids to play basketball.”

So, the coach found himself trying to hold his emotions together as he looked into an ESPN camera Sunday after beating Winthrop.

Ellis knows his career is winding down. That only added to the moment.

“I don’t have 10, 15, 20 years left,” Ellis said. “When you’re on a short string, you know that it’s something special.”


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