Return trip?: Q&A with Evanston Township High coach Mike Ellis on his love of basketball and getting back to the state finals

By Dan Moberger
Medill Reports

Tucked away down the hall from Evanston Township High School’s orange and blue gymnasium, Mike Ellis’ office looks like an equipment closet. Ellis, 49, doesn’t have any windows to the outside world — or even a window to the hallway. But that allows the coach more wall space to tack up pictures of former players who played college basketball. The Lyme, Ohio native grew up watching his father coach and knew early on he would like to turn his passion for sports into a career. Now in his 10th season heading the program, his Wildkits begin their state playoff run March 3 and eye a second-straight trip to the finals.

Evanston Township High School boys varsity basketball head coach Mike Ellis watches members of his team wrap up practice with a series of sprints on Jan. 13. Ellis’ Wildkits begin their state tournament run March 3. (Dan Moberger/MEDILL)

What makes a good coach?

Accountability is one of the biggest pieces you can institute in coaching because in honesty it’s about life lessons. When they get out of high school, they’re going to be accountable to their bills, they’re going to be accountable to family, they’re going to be accountable to their job. So, you’re just trying to teach them more about life than you are about basketball, and I think if you can mesh those two, that’s what makes a good coach.

Are there any coaches who you grew up admiring?

I had the opportunity to get into coaching in Iowa City, Iowa, with [Iowa City West head coach] Steve Bergman, and he’s got like seven state tournament championships. He’s one of the winningest coaches [of] all time in the state of Iowa. So, I was fortunate enough to start under Steve Bergman and learn from him what it means to be a good coach. And then, Bob Darling. While I was an assistant coach in Peoria, he was the head coach at Peoria Richwoods. He really taught me what it means to run a program and the importance and value of culture. I’ve always had my eyes on NBA coaches and college coaches and tried to pattern some of my philosophies off them at that level, wanting to coach college one day, but then I just fell in love with working with high school teenagers and trying to teach them so much more beyond basketball.

Ellis speaks with members of his staff during practice. (Dan Moberger/MEDILL)

Do you still want to coach college basketball?

It wasn’t necessarily like I wanted to be a college coach. It was more about what can I do to improve my knowledge of the game and my passion for the game if that opportunity ever presented itself. The fact that it hasn’t yet, I’m satisfied with that.

High school can be kind of a tough time for kids. What kind of coaching challenges does that present?

Sometimes it’s easy for fans to come to a high school game and think, “Why did they do that?” or “Why are they playing that way?” or just doubt the way these players perform at times, but you’re talking about kids that don’t even have a driver’s license yet, so they’re still growing, their brains are still processing, their bodies are still maturing.

Do you have any mantras for your team to live by?

I’m not one of those coaches that puts a slogan on the back of a T-shirt. I think after the first week of practice, that slogan is white noise. The way I run the program is the way you’d hope your mother and father would raise you. I don’t think any families have slogans.

You have two sons and a daughter. Have you ever coached them?

No. No. My daughter was the oldest, and she played volleyball for a couple years. And then my sons have played basketball, and they’re pretty talented, but they didn’t like the defensive end of the floor, so they were like, “I don’t think I’ll be able to play for my dad.” They just like to pop shots.

You guys were runner-up for the state championship last year. What was it like to get that close?

Playing the defending state champs in Belleville West with E.J. Liddell [now at Ohio State] and the teammates that he had, we knew that was going to be a challenge in being up seven at halftime. We got close and just didn’t put it all together. We played six great quarters of basketball down at the state tournament. It was just the last two that did us in.

The Wildkits coach watches his players finish up a shooting drill. (Dan Moberger/MEDILL)

Looking at how pro players conduct themselves, how does that affect the way high school players play?

They have to be real with themselves and be honest with themselves with their game. You see some of that sometimes where you get the high school player coming into the gym and they think they’re gonna launch 35-footers like Steph Curry, and they’re just not as skilled.

Evanston hasn’t won a title since 1968. What would that mean to these kids and the school and the area?

Definitely the area. The community talks a lot. Everywhere you go you hear, “1968, 1968, 1968.”

How do you spend the offseason?

I used to love to golf and fish, as an assistant coach, but then you move over that one seat and you always feel like, “What could I be doing to help our program out?” I love watching sports. I love watching basketball, football. My hobbies pretty much revolve around sports. I feel like I’m so much of a perfectionist. That’s why I stopped playing golf. If I can’t go to the driving range and work on my swing or play three, four rounds a week, all I’m gonna do is get frustrated.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo at top: Evanston Township High School boys varsity basketball head coach Mike Ellis, center, talks to his team at the end of practice on Jan. 13. (Dan Moberger/MEDILL)