The rock-and-roller who put this all together wasn't Auburn's first choice as the replacement for Tommy Joe Eagles, who resigned in 1994 after his third losing season in four years. The Tigers wanted a young man with enthusiasm and courted 35-year-old Duke assistant Mike Brey. When that didn't work out, Auburn went after a not-so-young man with enthusiasm, the then 48-year-old Ellis, who had built a successful program out of almost nothing at South Alabama and, more impressively, had won the 1990 ACC regular season championship at Clemson. Ellis sold Auburn basketball not only to blue-chip recruits like Robinson but also to the students, by working the crowd in the quad, lobbying the sororities and fraternities to change their meeting nights so as not to conflict with games, getting baseline seating for the students to energize the crowd, encouraging the formation of the student cheering section. "You've got to shake every hand, hug every baby, work the ladies and children," says Ellis. "I guess the good Lord gave me some instincts for building things."
Ellis built a music career during his college years at Florida State out of a good voice and a lot of salesmanship. From 1964 to '68 he was the lead singer for a five-man doo-wop group known as the Villagers. The group recorded four singles and played a lot of gigs, and along the way Ellis got to meet performers like Orbison, Delbert McClinton, Charlie Rich and James, who gave him a bit percussion part on her legendary hit Tell Mama. Ellis gave up music for a number of years until an old fan of the Villagers encouraged him to go back into the studio while he was at Clemson. He subsequently released two CDs, one of which included a version of Amazing Grace dedicated to former N.C. State coach Jim Valvano, a close friend of Ellis's.
Ellis whiles away most postgame nights pushing the buttons on a classic jukebox that occupies an honored spot in his rec room, near an end table made from part of the floor at Clemson's Littlejohn Coliseum. But he says his voice is rusty from lack of practice. In fact, the best crooner on the Auburn team is Abe Smith, a freshman forward, who performed the national anthem before the Vanderbilt game in a rich baritone and who sings each Sunday in church. Should the Tigers make it to the Final Four, we smell a duet coming on.