Twenty-five years after Clifton Ellis left his San Antonio home to play basketball for Temple College and coach Kirby Johnson, he’s returning to succeed the recently retired Johnson as the Leopards’ leader.
TC athletic director Craig McMurtry announced Monday that the 43-year-old Ellis, following a highly successful 14-year head coaching run at San Antonio Wagner and Schertz Clemens, has been hired as the school’s men’s basketball coach.
“We’re excited. I always thought this was a possibility,” said Ellis, who produced a combined 368-132 record (.736) at Wagner and Clemens and coached each school to two state tournament appearances. “It’s a different challenge.”
Ellis played point guard at TC from 1995-97, averaging 14.6 points and 10.4 assists as a sophomore while earning all-conference and all-region honors as the Leopards reached the NJCAA Region V Tournament championship game.
As Johnson contemplated retirement during recent years, Ellis became interested in following him as TC’s coach. When Johnson announced last year that 2019-20 would be his 33rd and final season, that interest grew.
And when Ellis and his wife, Aletha, and two sons — Clifton Jr., 10, and Aiden, 8 — attended Johnson’s home finale and farewell reception along with approximately 75 of Johnson’s former players, Ellis decided to pursue the TC job.
“When we came for his last game, that’s when it hit home,” Ellis said, adding that Johnson’s coaching and counsel have influenced him. “I saw how much the campus has changed, but it’s the same feel at Temple. That really got to me. I enjoy small college basketball and really enjoyed my two years at Temple. The idea of recruiting kids to Temple and a different way of building a team (is appealing).”
Ellis coached current NBA players Jordan Clarkson and Andre Roberson at Wagner, where he went 167-52 from 2006-12 before compiling a 201-80 record in eight seasons at Clemens. His state semifinal trips came in 2009, 2010, 2014 and 2015.
McMurtry said Ellis’ winning experience and Temple ties made him stand out above the approximately 110 other applicants.
“He has a track record of being very successful, and him having played here is big,” McMurtry said. “This is where he played and where things changed for him. He’s familiar with Temple College, and we think he’ll come back and carry on what Coach Johnson did for 33 years.”
Johnson went 715-306 at TC and finished with 10 consecutive regional berths, though the Leopards’ last postseason win came during their 31-1 season in 2004-05. He called Temple’s hiring of Ellis “a home run.”
“Cliff’s young enough that he can relate to young guys, but he’s experienced enough to know what’s going on,” Johnson said. “I’m proud he’s an ex-player of mine. It’s a great situation for Temple College and Clifton.”
Ellis played two seasons for Southwest Texas State, graduating in 2000. He earned a master’s in school administration from Texas A&M-San Antonio and is pursuing a doctorate in athletic administration from Concordia-Chicago.
TC’s athletic director since 2013, the 60-year-old McMurtry said Ellis might succeed him as AD whenever McMurtry retires.
TC’s five-person committee conducted interviews through video meetings. It also considered Tra Arnold, a successful junior college head coach at Blinn and Odessa before two seasons as an assistant at Iona, and J.D. Robson, Johnson’s assistant the last four seasons.