Evanston coach keeps his eyes on the real prize

Coach Ellis
Coach Mike Ellis talks to the Wildkits during a game against Glenbrook South. (Julia Cardi/MEDILL)

Q&A: Wildkits basketball coach Mike Ellis

By Julia Cardi

Twice in the past decade, Mike Ellis coached teams at Richwoods High School in Peoria to within three points of winning state championships. Now he’s four games away from the title with the Evanston Wildkits. But he’s not asking his players to bring home the trophy for his sake.

After more than 20 years coaching high school basketball – including 14 at Richwoods and the last six at Evanston – Ellis has come to focus more on mentoring his players than on cutting down the nets.

During an interview in his office, Ellis, 45, discussed why he loves coaching at the high school level, how he keeps his players from getting complacent and what he’s learned from them. Excerpts:

Q: Why do you coach?
I have a love for the game. I just feel like it’s our duty to present [the players] with the greatest experience in high school basketball. Not everybody’s going to go on to play college basketball, and it’s satisfying to me when we hear graduates come back and say they felt like they played college basketball in high school.

I just want to be able to have student-athletes walk across the stage at graduation, reflecting on their basketball experiences and having no regrets. If [they’re having regrets], I know that it’s time to hang it up. So there’s that bond with them, where they’re getting all of me, and I feel like they’re investing all of them[selves] into the program, too.

Q: Why high school basketball, as opposed to any other level of program?
I think you can have the greatest impact on the growth and development of a young person’s life in his teenage years. Compared to coaching at the next level, where it’s about recruiting, it’s about scholarships, it’s about winning, those things aren’t present at the high school level.

So you can take away some of those elements that allow you to enjoy the day-to-day aspect of coaching, which is teaching kids about lessons in life – not just putting the ball in the basket, but what it’s going to require of you to be a successful businessperson, a successful spouse, a successful citizen in the community.

Q: How do you keep your players hungry?
[Not giving enough] compliments is probably a weakness of mine, because I want to defend against being complacent. You just try to instill upon them we can always get better. We don’t have any magical goals or dreams of winning the state [championship] and those types of things. Our goals are as simple as, “Let’s be better tomorrow than we are today.”

Coach Ellis
Coach Mike Ellis talks to senior Micquel Roseman during a game against Glenbrook South. (Julia Cardi/MEDILL)

Q: What story from your coaching career really stands out?
[On Senior Night, we honored point guard] Dajae Coleman and his legacy he left on our community, having been senselessly shot and killed as a freshman [in September 2012].

Aaron Davis was our point guard at Peoria Richwoods, and he had to deal with a similar situation where someone invaded his home. He was shot three times and survived, and ended up playing in the state finals a year later.

So comparing those two situations, you just see how blessed some people are, and how lucky we all are here on Earth, and not to take any day for granted. Going into coaching I never thought that I would have to deal with two players being shot.

For me, the players that go back into coaching may speak to the impact I’ve had on their lives. They really enjoyed the experiences they’ve had with us, and now they want to turn around and give back to the sport.

Q: Obviously, coaching is about teaching players how to be better at their game and as people. What have your players taught you?
Off the court, I’m very laid-back, I’m very introverted; I’m not an outgoing person. But when you get on the court, it’s like you’re doing it for them. You want them to have the most knowledgeable experience and drive them the hardest, where you want them to be goal-driven in life.

There are times when I can see it in their eyes that they’re not having the most enjoyment, but when you wake up the next day and come back to practice and they give a little more, they’re teaching me that those lessons are valuable.

Q: What do you think gets them through on days when they aren’t enjoying themselves on the court?
I think it’s our culture. High school students, they aren’t going out and trying to win a state tournament for their coach. There’s so much more in their life besides one person that’s been in their life for three or four years. What we do successfully, I believe, is they want to do it for each other. They want to win for the right reasons. You shouldn’t want to win for your coach.

Q: Why don’t you think they should want to win for their coach?
I don’t know if it’s me being modest or humble, but when it comes down to it, I think the relationships they have with their friends at this age are so much more influential than a person they see a couple hours a day. I’m going to give them everything I have and every lesson I have, but maybe I just don’t think I’m that impactful in their lives.

When you’re in the state tournament and there’s 30 seconds to go and the game’s tied and there’s a loose ball, I don’t think they’re saying, “Let me go get that for Coach.” It’s, “We.” “Us.” “We’ve got to make sure we make this play.”

Photo at top: Coach Mike Ellis talks to the Wildkits during a game against Glenbrook South. (Julia Cardi/MEDILL)