Ellis rebuilt Auburn basketball with record 29-win season
Cliff Ellis considers himself something of a savant when it comes to building a college basketball program, and if he said it once, he’s said it 100 times.
“You’ve got to hug the mamas and kiss the babies,” the former Auburn basketball coach often says in his rich Southern tone, the voice that once allowed him to belt out beach music as lead singer for a band called The Villagers.
But building a winning sports program from nothing was never easy. It especially wasn’t easy at Auburn, which had produced only three winning records in Southeastern Conference (SEC) play in the previous 18 seasons before Ellis’ hire in 1994. Obviously, in current times, hoops excitement is real at Auburn under coach Bruce Pearl, but prior to Ellis’ tenure the only NCAA appearances the program had ever had was a five-year run from 1984-88 under Sonny Smith.
Yes, it took lots of hugging and kissing.
It took patience, too. Lots of it, in fact, before Ellis finally produced the winningest season in program history — the 1998-99 Tigers, who finished 29-4, won the regular-season Southeastern Conference championship and a No. 1 seed in the South Regional.
And “the biggest factor (in the 1999 success) wasn’t a player at all,” declares ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia, “but the Cliff Dwellers — Auburn’s rabid home fans, named in honor of coach Cliff Ellis.”
So, you can see that Ellis eventually connected—and won—even though building an exciting atmosphere was tough before $5 million in improvements were made to previously drab Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. His first four seasons on The Plains produced three NIT bids. That’s it. But the 1995-96 signing class produced a group of players that would gain the necessary experience to take this program to new heights:
—Doc Robinson, a point guard from Selma, Alabam. He was the first commitment of the group. “I shouted out `hallelujah,’ ” Ellis told Chris Dortch in String Music: Inside the Rise of SEC Basketball. … “We told Doc we’d put the ball in his hands for years. And that’s what we did. There was no question he was one of the pivotal players in the SEC in the 1990s.”
—Mamadou N’diaye (pronounced Mama-Doo IN-jie) a 7-foot center from Dakar, Senegal. He came to the U.S. in 1995 to play at a private high school in Maine in his first year of organized basketball. He signed to play for the University of Maine, but when the coach took another job, he successfully petitioned the NCAA for a scholarship release and followed assistant coach Mike LaPlante to Ellis’ Auburn program.
—Scott Pohlman, a baby-faced 3-point shooter from Roswell, Georgia. His only offer prior to Auburn’s late one was to Pepperdine, but he would go on to become one of Auburn’s most beloved players ever. “We all get caught up in whether a kid is big enough or quick enough,” LaPlante told Dortch. “But you can’t measure heart. We ended up calling the kid `The Assassin.’”
—Daymeon Fishback, a wing player from Bowling Green, Kentucky. The Kentucky Player of the Year would be a role player for Auburn and provide crucial depth. He picked the Tigers mainly because his dad had played for Ellis at Cumberland College in the early 1970s. Fishback is now a lead basketball analyst for the SEC Network.
Talk about chemistry. These guys, with their work ethic and diverse skill sets, laid the foundation. It all came together in 1998-99 because it was their third year on campus, they were joined by senior wing player Bryant Smith from Huntsville, Alabama, known as the best defender in the league, and then, of course, there was the final piece of the puzzle:
“Chris Porter just took us to another level,” Ellis said.
The leading scorer (16 points per game) and rebounder (8.6) on Auburn’s greatest team, Porter, from Abbeville, Alabama, was the high-flying, dunking, long-range shooting, athletic rock star that put the Tigers over the top. He was supposed to join the four members of that 1995-96 class, however he hadn’t qualified academically. So he went to Chipola (Florida) Junior College for two seasons. “Porter would have a major impact at Auburn, both good and bad,” Dortch wrote.
But as mid-January 1999 came around, it was all good. Behind an in-your-face defense led by Porter’s long, flapping arms that anchored a 1-3-1 zone press, Auburn was 17-0 to start the season before a trip to Rupp Arena produced a 72-62 loss to Kentucky, in part due to a flu bug that plagued Robinson, Fishback and Adrian Chilliest.
But no worries, the high-flying, confident Tigers rebounded to win nine of their final 10 regular-season games and take a 26-2 record into the SEC Tournament. A chink in the armor occurred, however, as Porter was suspended for three games during this stretch for a violation of team rules. Freshman Mack McGadney filled in nicely during this stretch, helping lead the team to its first win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 14 seasons.
Still, a unique Cinderella story appeared ready to play out in March. The nation had noticed that a football school was killing it on the hardwood. Auburn destroyed rival Alabama 93-61 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in the SEC quarterfinals but fell to 0-2 against Kentucky with a 69-57 loss in the semis.
Again, no worries—the Tigers got a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, along with Duke, Michigan State and Connecticut. But unlike those three, the Tigers wouldn’t reach the Final Four.
Instead, after wins over Winthrop and Oklahoma State (Pohlman’s career-high 28 led the way) in Indianapolis, Auburn fell 72-64 to No. 4 seed Ohio State in the Sweet 16 round at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Buckeyes, behind backcourt stars Michael Redd and Scoonie Penn, would go on to beat St. John’s and reach the Final Four in St. Petersburg, Florida, where UConn edged Duke for the national title.
While great things were expected the following season, Porter was removed from the team after Auburn learned he had accepted money from a sports agent. N’diaye suffered a knee injury. The team missed Smith’s defense. And the chemistry wasn’t the same. The team was good—it finished 24-10—but lost to Iowa State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Ellis would only get back to the NCAAs one more time—the 2002-03 season—and after following that with a 14-14 mark in 2003-04, Auburn fired him.
It was a tough job. But accepting that challenge was Ellis’ choice. He spent 10 seasons at Auburn, with the zenith absolutely being the 1998-99 squad.
Currently the coach at Coastal Carolina, Ellis had no regrets. When he left Clemson after 10 seasons, he was trying to pick between an opening at Western Kentucky and Auburn.
“Western Kentucky was attractive because they had a full team coming back and had basketball tradition for many years,” Ellis wrote in his book, Cliff Ellis: The Winning Edge. “Auburn was in a better conference, it was near home, and the program needed rebuilding. It was my cup of tea. I said, ‘Let’s go for the grand slam.’”
He’d already rebuilt three programs—Cumberland, South Alabama and Clemson—so his “grand slam” baseball reference referred to driving in his fourth unexpected run with his coaching swing, so to speak. That would be Auburn.
The team was recently honored at Auburn Arena, where the Tigers now play. It was Lettermen Day on Jan. 12, 2019, and the team was recognized before the Auburn-Georgia game.
Needless to say, Pearl was thrilled to do it, for a simple reason,
“Obviously, that was the best team in Auburn basketball history,” he said. H&A