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'It's a win-win' as Cliff Ellis returns to play Auburn
Dec. 4, 2014

Cliff Ellis, who'll celebrate his 69th birthday Friday, leads Coastal Carolina in a Thursday practice in Auburn Arena

By Charles Goldberg

AUBURN, Ala.  It took a little convincing for Cliff Ellis to come back, first for a reunion with some of his former players over the summer, and now to play his old team on Friday night.

Cliff Ellis, Auburn's basketball coach from 1994-2004 until he was fired, has returned to send his team, Coastal Carolina, against Auburn at 8 o'clock on his 69th birthday. He received a standing ovation from those who attended the Auburn reunion in the summer that included players from generations of the basketball program, and figures to receive a warm welcome in Auburn Arena as well.

Ellis said he was choked up before a practice session at Auburn Arena on Thursday, perhaps not unlike the day he left as basketball coach.

"When I walked upstairs," he said Thursday, "I was teary-eyed. It tugged on me.

"This is the first time I've been back on this campus since I left and I'm glad to see it."

New Auburn basketball Bruce Pearl brought him back, first for the reunion, then by talking Ellis into playing Auburn. Pearl smiled about that Thursday, wondering what he had gotten himself into because Coastal Carolina played in the NCAA Tournament last year, and Auburn didn't; and because Coastal runs complicated sets that the Tigers had only one day to prepare for after playing at Texas Tech on Wednesday night.

Ellis knows about Auburn basketball. He was named the SEC coach of the year twice, won the SEC regular-season title in 1999; led three teams to the NCAA Tournament, including two to the Sweet 16; and took four teams to the NIT. Ellis was 186-125 at Auburn and today is the 10th winningest active Division I coach, and 27th all-time.

Still it was Pearl who pushed for Ellis to return. Ellis said he had to give it some thought.

"It was the right time and Bruce is the one that reached out. You know, Bruce is a salesman, he sold me," Ellis said. "That's why he's going to be good. I was like, 'I don't know, I'll call you back. And then you think about it and, 'You know Bruce is right.'"

Ellis also knows how to play the game. He negotiated a 2-for-1 series with Auburn, meaning the Tigers will have to play at Coastal Carolina of the Big South Conference before the Chanticleers return to Auburn for another game.

Pearl's original offer gave Ellis pause.

"I told him at the time I just didn't know if I was ready to come back, and his basic statement was 'the people want you to come back and your players need you to come back. You've done too much and you need to get involved.' 

"It's a win-win no matter what, no matter who wins the game, the fact that Bruce has reached out, I feel good about coming back in, we’ll try to win this game."

Pearl is looking for a hook, something fans can relate to in his first season. Ellis was a natural.

"Let us honor him, and let us remember all the good that was done," Pearl said. "Let his former players relish a little bit. I'm glad that Cliff was able to come back and play in a game.

"For our basketball fans and our season ticket holders, this isn't just another basketball game. This is another event."

Ellis has won at Coastal. Everywhere, really. So has Pearl. 

"I think Bruce is really going to turn this thing and the reason I say that is No. 1 he's got a lot of energy, I can see it when I talk to him and visit with him," Ellis said. "He plays a style of game that we used to play when those championships were here; he’s pressing, he’s doing things to try to get possessions from those teams like Kentucky and people like that that are going to come in here and have all the All-Americans. So he’s going to bring that style of play that fans like, fans are going to like him, and he’s going to get people involved and he’s going to recruit. If you do that, it's good.

"I want to see it turned back. The thing that I look back is when we left the program, from '99-04 there was an SEC Championship, three NCAA Tournaments, two Sweet 16s."

Ellis said he still runs into Auburn fans, even members of the old student section, the Cliff Dwellers.

"Seeing the fans, seeing the friends and I know there’s going to be former players and coaches, that’s what it's all about," he said. "I know that Auburn had a very positive impact on my life and I hope that I have done the same thing in making an impact on people’s lives. All you can do is love, care and serve and I did love this university, I did care about it and I did serve it. If you can go through life and say that you've done that in a way that if fulfilling then I think life is well served."

Facts, broadcast schedule, ticket info and notes about the game are here.
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at Follow him on Twitter:



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