Ellis trades quarterbacking for coaching

Tom Batters
Richwoods boys basketball coach Mike Ellis.

Mike Ellis was a decent quarterback at Northern Iowa in the early 1990s, but he realized early in his football career that his dreams of becoming a NFL quarterback were just not realistic.

“I grew up idolizing (former Cleveland Browns quarterback) Bernie Kosar,” said Ellis, who is in his fifth year as head basketball coach at Richwoods. “But, I knew my limitations. Basketball was my passion, even back then. Football was just something else I liked to play. I knew it wasn’t in my future, though.”

Ellis, who was born in Ohio, moved to Dubuque, Iowa when he was 5 years old.

He played baseball, basketball and football in high school, and was invited to walk on at Northern Iowa to tryout for a quarterback spot under coach Earl Bruce. He played one season for the Panthers (one year before Kurt Warner became the quarterback at Northern Iowa) before transferring to the University of Iowa to pursue his dream of becoming a head basketball coach.

Ellis played basketball for the walk-on team under Iowa coach Dr. Tom Davis, and, even if he didn’t realize it at the time, he was already developing his coaching style.

“I didn’t care for Coach Davis’s philosophy (slower, methodical tempo), and I didn’t want to practice it every day,” Ellis said.

I

n his junior year at Iowa, he hung up his playing shoes and took a job as an assistant coach under Steve Bergman at a high school in Iowa City.

Bergman took him to a coaching clinic with legendary Indiana coach Bob Knight. Ellis looks back on that clinic now and calls it one of the most influential moments in his career.

“I fell in love with Coach Knight’s motion offense and man-to-man defense,” Ellis said. “I knew that was the kind of style I wanted to coach.”

Ellis, 37, graduated from Iowa and stayed on as an assistant under Bergman before moving to Peoria in the late 1990s to take a shot at the   talent-rich Peoria high school basketball scene.

He got a job as a physical education teacher at Mark Bills School, and asked around about landing an assistant coaching position at one of the Peoria high schools.

He contacted Wayne McClain, who had won three straight state championships at Manual, but McClain was not inclined to give a young, inexperienced guy a chance.

“It was very hard to find a coaching job in Peoria. I realized that, but I kept trying. I believed in myself,” Ellis said.

Richwoods coach Wayne Hammerton (the winningest coach in Richwoods history with 525 wins from 1970-96) gave Ellis his big break in 1994 when he hired him as a volunteer assistant coach.

“Coach Hammerton gave me a chance. I’m very thankful that he did that for me,” Ellis said. “Thanks to him, I learned what Richwoods basketball is all about. Any success I’ve had here at Richwoods could not have happened without Coach Hammerton.”

Hammerton retired in 1996 and Bob Darling became head coach. Ellis was promoted from volunteer to full-time assistant.

Darling took over where Hammerton left of, and provided Ellis with valuable lessons in what it takes to run a successful high school basketball program.

“Coach Darling is like a big brother to me,” Ellis said. “He taught me just about everything there is to know about running a program. I learned from him how to embrace the community, how to treat kids fairly and with respect.”

Ellis was named head coach at Richwoods in 2003.

He went 15-14 in his first season, which, by Richwoods’ standards, was a disappointment.

“My first year was rough,” he said. “We played some tough teams (including Peoria Central, which won the state championship in 2003 and 2004), and we were in some close games. But, even though the record wasn’t the greatest, I was very proud of that team. The kids never gave in, and they played really hard every night.”

Ellis guided the Knights to a 21-8 record the next year. In his third season, he took Richwoods all the way to the state championship game.

That Knights team, which featured Bill Cole, Justin Dehm and Ryan Phillips, lost in overtime to Chicago Simeon in the Class AA championship game at Carver Arena in front of a packed hometown cheering section.

Ellis said he entered that season with a good feeling about his team, but he had no idea it would end up going to State.

“I thought we were good, but I thought we had room for improvement, too,” he said. “That team won more with heart than it did with pure talent. You have to give those kids a lot of credit. They had strong character and they were a close family that stuck together and played hard together.”

Cole is now playing at the University of Illinois. Dehm is at Furman University, and Ellis is left with a young and inexperienced team.

A less driven coach might lament about the growing pains young players must go through before they are ready. He might say his team is in a “rebuilding year.”

Not Ellis.

He guided this team of three seniors, two juniors and 10 sophomores to first place in the highly-competitive Mid-State 6 Conference, an Associated Press Class 3A top 10 ranking and a bright postseason outlook.

“At the beginning of the season, I couldn’t wait to get out there and meet the challenge head on,” Ellis said. “We’re not going to pack it in just because we’re a young team. We’re going to work hard and try to get better every day. If we do that, we can compete with anybody.”

The phrase, “he gets the most out of his players” is often overused, but it is applicable to Ellis, whose practices are fast and intense with no tolerance for lapses.

“I work hard in practice. I want the players to see that they have a hard-working coach. I can’t ask them to give it their all if I’m not giving it my all, too. We’re all in it together.”

After practice, Ellis often meets one-on-one with each player to talk about his progress on the court, or just to chat about how things are going.

Ellis said he hopes he is doing more than teaching the game of basketball. He said he c

herishes the chance to watch his players mature and learn lessons that will help them as they go on to college.

“I hope they learn skills that they can take with them beyond basketball,” he said. “There’s much more to life than playing basketball. I want these kids to become better people after they leave high school.”

Ellis and his wife, Lisa, have three children.

He said he is happy at Richwoods, but he would not rule out the possibility of becoming a college coach someday.

“I would really have to look at it to see if it would be a good opportunity for me and my family,” he said. “I have a good job now, so it would have to be a really good job for me to leave here.”