TEMPLE, Texas — When Clifton Ellis stepped on the court for Temple College as a player 25 years ago, he did not know that one day he would return to lead them.
Ellis was named the Leopards' new Head Coach in 2020 after long-time coach Kirby Johnson announced his plan to retire after the 2020 season.
Ellis played for Johnson from 1995 to 1997, learning from the living legend before continuing his playing career at Southwest Texas State, now known as Texas State University.
"He said we're gonna put you out here, and you guys already know how to play," Ellis said. "So, we're gonna put you in a style where you can do what you can do. At the time you didn't realize it, but as I've gotten into coaching and now I'm coming back here, I realize how important it was."
After graduating from college, Ellis began coaching Texas high school basketball in the San Antonio area. Two of his former players, Andre Roberson and Jordan Clarkson, made it to the NBA.
But, when the opportunity arose for Ellis to rise back into the collegiate ranks, he jumped at the opportunity.
"The idea of a small college, coming back to Temple, it was a dream come true really," he said.
Ellis took the job in April, just after the pandemic struck. He said he talked with several coaches at both the high school and college level about how to manage the new, unknown obstacle, but one of the people he talked to most was Coach Johnson.
"I talk to him all the time," Ellis said. "And getting the job toward the end of April like I did, we would have two, three-hour sessions where I was just picking his brain. And he's always been open to talking to me about it."
The pandemic has put a damper on Ellis's first season at the helm. Just last week, 5 of the team's 13 athletes missed practice and games due to COVID-related issues.
"We were worried about a lot of the player's mental health because they weren't able to play and have the structure of going to school," Ellis said. "But now we're in a situation where we get the chance to come to the gym and practice and play, we want to have fun with it."
He says he hopes to one day be able to hang banners in the rafters to go along with the ones he won as a player under Coach Johnson.