LOYOLA'S STRAIGHT SHOOTER

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Brian Ellerbe has reached this point without ducking questions or sugarcoating his opinions, and he isn't about to change.

Ellerbe has made it this far, this quickly in the pressure-packed world of Division I basketball coaching for numerous reasons. He has shown the same hustle as a coach that he displayed 13 years ago as a freshman at Rutgers, where he ran the offense smoothly during a fine college career. He has been successful as an assistant coach at Bowling Green, South Carolina, George Mason and Virginia.

And candor has never been a problem for Ellerbe, Loyola's 31-year-old rookie coach. You want an honest critique from Ellerbe? No problem.

Take his observations last month. Sizing up the Greyhounds (3-3) as they prepared for their opener, Ellerbe referred to them as "small, unathletic, not very quick and not real deep," adding, "We don't have a lot of guys with skills. We have guys who play hard."

Some players were stung by Ellerbe's blunt commentary. Which was precisely his intention.

"I think it woke us up a little bit," Ellerbe said. "Up to that point, we were going through the motions a lot, dwelling on what happened last year, just kind of hanging out. There is no place for complacency here. None."

Ellerbe has been hired to bring stability and growth to a program that is groping for both. He is the fourth Greyhounds coach in the past two seasons. He came aboard after a historic season, in which Loyola enjoyed its first winning season in seven years, capped by the first trip to the NCAA tournament in the school's Division I history.

Soon after that, Loyola lost coach Skip Prosser. He left after his rookie season to become head coach at Xavier, where he had been an assistant for eight years. Loyola athletic director Joe Boylan set his sights on Ellerbe, whom Boylan had recruited at Rutgers in his assistant coaching days. In Ellerbe, Boylan saw a young, energetic assistant coach who was ready to take over a program.

Boylan sure didn't have to worry about complacency with Ellerbe. This is a guy who, before his 21st birthday, was a graduate assistant coach at Rutgers. A year later, he became a full-time assistant at Bowling Green.

Ellerbe hasn't stopped working since. Two years at Bowling Green and a year each at George Mason and South Carolina brought him to the big time at Virginia, where over four years he helped land top recruits such as Cory Alexander, Harold Deane and Dunbar's Norman Nolan.

"Brian did a great job of being very honest in assessing situations, letting people know how he felt, but not coming away as harsh or overly critical, whether with recruits or players," Virginia coach Jeff Jones said. "Assistants aren't here to stroke the players."

The Greyhounds found that out about their new coach soon enough, as sophomore guard Mike Powell recalled, after Ellerbe's preseason comments were published. Powell played at Virginia last year, before transferring to Loyola, where he is sitting out this season.

"Some players were hurt, but after I talked with them, they understood where he was coming from," Powell said. "He wasn't trying to embarrass anyone. He tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. . . . A lot of players were on a pedestal. They had their MAAC championship rings, they had been to the NCAAs, and it seemed like they were satisfied."

John McDonald, the Greyhounds' starting freshman point guard, gained an early appreciation of Ellerbe's direct ways. After Ellerbe was hired in April, one of his first chores was to fly to New York to see McDonald, a Prosser recruit who had recently signed with Loyola.

"He told me if I played hard, played well and played smart, I would get the job. [And] here I am," said McDonald, who is averaging 33 minutes while learning his position. "Everything he tells you is the truth. He'll never lie to you. You can talk to him anytime you want about anything."

Ellerbe also has broken some ice by copying a Virginia tradition. Each night before a game at the team scouting meeting, one class of players must stage a comedy skit in which they poke fun at someone -- a player, an assistant, even Ellerbe.

Still, Ellerbe never has had much time for funny business. Boylan often talks about how mature Ellerbe was as a teen-ager, how driven he was in the classroom and on the court.

Having a mother who constantly preached about work ethic played a big role in Ellerbe's development. Tragedy also has shaped him. Ellerbe lost both of his parents to cancer. His father died when he was 12. He lost his mother eight years ago.

"Dad never even saw me play. I lost Mom when I was at Bowling Green. It made me grow up real fast and realize that I needed some career goals," Ellerbe said. "I didn't have a lot of time to hang around. I needed to get out and support Brian right away. I just threw myself into the job when I got into coaching. It helped me deal with things."

Ellerbe's energy is evident at Loyola. The season is not a month old, and he already has received five letters of intent from frontcourt players who represent a stake in the Greyhounds' future. With Powell and fellow transfer guard Anthony Smith (Duquesne) coming back, the Greyhounds will have a drastically different look next year.

Ellerbe relishes the thought of driving the Greyhounds to the next level.

"I want kids who love the game, who feel a passion for the game, and I've got a pretty good idea of what you need to be a good program. I've seen it at all levels," he said.

"This program is in its infant stages, fetus stages, really. We don't have the tradition here. We have to educate the college on what it takes to be a Division I competitor game after game, year

after year."

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