Brian Ellerbe wants to dispel a myth that lingers from his first season as men's basketball coach at Loyola College.
"People think I had a tough time last year," he said. "I didn't have a tough time." His team certainly did, though it wasn't unexpected. Magic can fade just as suddenly as it arrives.
Two years ago, the Greyhounds were unlikely Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions and a first-round opponent of mighty Arizona in the NCAA tournament. But graduation stripped away important components such as Tracy Bergan and Michael Reese, and coach Skip Prosser left for Xavier. If the cupboard wasn't bare, it surely sounded hollow.
Ellerbe, 32, who was hired after four years as an assistant at Virginia, could hear the echo. There was much work to be done, so he rolled up his sleeves.
"The tough thing here was, there wasn't a start to establishing a program," said Ellerbe, the team's fourth coach since the start of the 1992 season. "Even though Skip did a heck of a job and they won, the beginning of building a program still hadn't started. So I come in, and I'm starting from scratch. And I mean everything, from having continuity to your practice time, to getting guys in the right courses so they have the best chances of doing a good job in practice, to establishing some type of weight program or a good meal program. All of those things add up."
What didn't add up were victories. The 9-18 season ended like so many others at Loyola, with an early exit from the MAAC tournament. And there were more serious problems, such as sophomore guard Darius Johnson's leaving the team in January after his dedication was questioned by Ellerbe.
Other players, including leading scorer B. J. Pendleton, were benched at various times for breaking team rules.
In many ways, it was an ugly beginning for Ellerbe, but none of this left him discouraged. He had made the right move in coming to Loyola, he said. There was no looking back and no regrets.
"Even though we didn't win as many games as we would have liked to, I enjoyed it, just because I love the business. I love the coaching. I love the recruiting," he said.
Ellerbe's first recruiting class will figure prominently this season. He started three freshmen in Loyola's first exhibition game, and brought in a fourth early. Nearly half the roster is made up of first-year players, which means more teaching needs to be done.
No matter how sharp the growing pains this winter, Ellerbe says the Greyhounds are on the right path. And perhaps the biggest reason is his ability to recruit.
Virginia's 1992 freshman class was rated third in the nation, and the 1994 group ranked in the top 15. Now Ellerbe's funneling more young talent into Loyola's program, bringing in impact players such as Milford Mill's Blanchard Hurd, a 6-foot-7 forward who earned All-Metro honors as a senior.
"He's a great motivator," Hurd said. "He can motivate you to play better than you thought you ever could. And he's a straight-up guy. He's honest. There's nothing phony about him."
Next year's class, though lacking in quantity, may be unsurpassed in quality. Ellerbe and his staff have reeled in some prized catches in point guard Jason Rowe of Buffalo, N.Y., the first Loyola recruit to be chosen to the ABCD Adidas camp; Darren Kelly of Largo, one of the nation's top shooting guards and the first Greyhound recruit to be selected to the Nike All-American camp; and forward Erik Cooper of Middleburgh, N.Y.
"I'm very excited about Jason Rowe, who's an absolute steal," Ellerbe said. "I think he's going to have a great career. And Erik Cooper will probably be the backbone of our basketball program the next four years."
Ellerbe said he isn't surprised to have drawn players from well outside the state the past two years. "I think we can recruit within a five- or six-hour radius in any direction," he said.
But can he lure more fans to each game? And can he make them better understand the challenge he has undertaken, so soon after that wondrous ride to the NCAA tournament?
"We've got to establish something where they want to come, and they understand the growing pains of building a program," he said. "You need a star player, or a breakthrough year. Something monumental has to happen.
"I think we're on the right track. We're definitely on the right track."