Mike Ellis, welcome to Chicago. What is a nice guy like you doing in a place like this?
After winning 74 percent (156-55) of your games in seven years in a prestigious program at Peoria Richwoods, including second-place finishes in the state tournament in 2006 and 2010 and coming off last season's 30-3 record, why did you decide to tackle what some critics insist is a no-win situation at Evanston?
"I'm 40 years old. Evanston is a new challenge in teaching and coaching for me. People I talked to had nothing but good things to say about Evanston," Ellis said. "I knew it would be a great challenge to take on. I knew Evanston basketball is very important to the community and the school. Things were going well at Richwoods. We had been achieving season after season. Leaving was the toughest decision I ever had to make in my life. But I have no regrets about leaving Peoria."
Ellis, who was born in Ohio, went to school in Dubuque, Iowa, and coached in Iowa City before moving to Peoria to serve as an assistant to former Richwoods coaches Wayne Hammerton and Bob Darling, said he didn't know anything about the long and distinguished history of the Evanston program, just that it had been successful in the past.
"I didn't know about the 1968 state championship team or the 1984 state runnerup, about Bob Lackey or Everette Stephens, but I knew Evanston would give me a chance to reach out to more kids, to develop a program that younger kids can attach to.
"That was one element that was missing in Peoria. Some kids go to Peoria Manual or Peoria Central or Peoria Richwoods. I marvel at what Neil Alexander has done at Lincoln with a great feeder system. Also at Rock Island and Moline and Quincy and Galesburg. I can see how it can work if kids have a love for the high school basketball team and you are the only school in town."
Ellis understands there will be pressure on his shoulders. Evanston always has high expectations. Even before preseason practice begins on Nov. 8, he is aware that his first squad boasts at least two Division I prospects, 6-8 senior James Farr and 6-0 senior point guard Garrett Jones, the kind of talent he rarely had at Richwoods.
"Sometimes pressure is good. It takes pressure to make diamonds. It can be a good thing," Ellis said. "If you think of the programs I have referred to (Quincy, Rock Island, Moline, Galesburg), there is pressure there, too. It is a positive situation. People care. When there is pressure, that means it is important to the community. I want to be sure that junior high school kids in Evanston say they want to go to school at Evanston and play basketball."
At Evanston, Ellis said he will play full-court and half-court man-to-man defense. He also will teach an uptempo offense but cautions that the style each season will be dictated by the personnel on the roster. He will try to recognize the strengths of his players and put them in position to be successful.
Ellis couldn't wait to get started. He left his family in Peoria. He is paying $90 a night to stay in a Hampton Inn in Skokie. His wife is a registered nurse. His daughter is a freshman at Richwoods and his two sons are in sixth and second grades. They are staying in Peoria to finish their school years before moving to Evanston.
"The opportunity to teach and coach at a school with 3,000 students with the reputation of Evanston was too much to pass up," he said. "The kids at Evanston are similar to kids at Richwoods. We had inner city kids being bused to Richwoods. Most important, there is a love for basketball in Peoria and Evanston."
Ellis is aware that Evanston's program hasn't performed up to expectations in recent years. To change the attitude, he has opened up the gym, met with his players and has begun to develop off-the-court relationships with them. He is learning their character and values, not just their scoring averages.
"We have a great senior class," he said. "I tell them: 'Why can't you be the class that says we started it?'
"I am very goal oriented. The parents will figure out that, in my program, it isn't about records or statistics, just the development of the kids. My goal isn't to win a certain number of games or get to state. Those things will take care of themselves if you do the right things. There are three things I want to see--that the team plays hard, plays together and plays smart."