By Roscoe Nance
Most youngsters grow up wanting to be star athletes. Not Wilbert Ellis. All the 2011 SWAC Hall of Fame inductee wanted to do from the time he was nine years old was coach baseball.
Ellis became hooked on baseball listening games on the family radio, and hearing about Jackie Robinson's exploits as he broke Major League Baseball's color barrier motivated him to play. Ellis would go out to his backyard and hit tennis balls and rocks, and it wasn't long before he was getting up teams together in his neighborhood in Ruston, La.
Ellis got his first taste of coaching while playing for Coach Jimmy Duncan at Lincoln High. Duncan had to meet with the principal during a practice, and he left Ellis in charge.
"We had a good practice," says Ellis, one of six SWAC greats who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame during a ceremony Thursday night in Birmingham, Ala.. "Guys listened to me, and everything just caught on."
"One of greatest thrills to happen in my life is for me to live to see SWAC honor me," Ellis says. "I've had a rich life in the conference."
Ellis describes himself as "just an average player" as a first baseman who "could make the defensive play, got some singles and doubles and could lay it down." But he just had a knack - and the desire - for coaching. As a teenager playing with adults in their 20s, Ellis was sought out for advice on what to do in certain situations.
"It was exciting to me," he says.
After high school, Ellis played at Grambling for R.W.E. Jones, the school's president who started baseball in 1926 and coached the team until 1978. Ellis was Jones' assistant coach for 17 seasons before succeeding him in 1978. During his 26-year career as coach of the Tigers, Ellis compiled a 745-462-1 record. Jones and Skip Bertram of LSU are only baseball coaches in Louisiana with more victories. Ellis teams won eight division championships, three SWAC championships and made five trips to the NCAA Regional Tournament, and he was named SWAC Coach of the Year seven times.
Ellis says the foundation for his success at Grambling and his passion for his alma can be attributed to his association with Jones, Hall of Fame Football coach Eddie Robinson, men's basketball coach Fred Hobdy, another SWAC Hall of Famer, and Collie J. Nicholson, the school's legendary Sports Information Director and marketing genius.
"When you talked to guys like Prez (Jones), Rob, Collie and Hobdy, you couldn't help but love the place. You would just won't to be a part of that. Those guys made Grambling. I tried to learn everything I could from them."
Former Jackson State baseball coach and SWAC Hall of Famer Bob Braddy says Ellis was one of his role models. Ellis was an assistant coach at Grambling when Braddy pitched for Jackson State, and he says he was always impressed with the hospitality that G-Men extended to them.
"I said if I ever became a coach, I wanted to pattern my behavior after what I saw at Grambling," Braddy says. "They ran a first class program. There was something special about them. They were great role models."
Braddy recalls the time that Jackson State played at Grambling and his brother suffered an asthma attack in the wee hours of the night.
"We didn't want to bother anybody," Braddy says. "Coach Ellis got upset that we didn't call him in middle of the night. He said that was their responsibility."
Braddy says nothing changed when Ellis took over as coach. He was as cordial and as hospitable as ever.
"His teams were very competitive," Braddy says. "You could always expect them to greet you very cordially, treat you with respect, and then try to beat the hell out of you."
Braddy says Ellis' teams were always well-rounded.
"They were bangers," he says. "They were a great defensive ballclub. He was defensive-minded, and defense starts with pitching. But they were going to score runs on you."
Ellis had 48 players to sign Major League contracts, including Lenny Webster, Gary Eaves, Courtney Duncan and Gerald Williams. That was a testament to Ellis' eye for talent, his penchant for developing players' skills and his ability to recruit.
"He was a heck of recruiter," Braddy says. "Anytime you went against him trying to get a player, you were going to lose. Once he talked to mother, you could hang it up. I guess it was that paternal tone in his voice. They really believed what he was telling them."
Ellis is one of two black coaches in the College Baseball Hall of Fame - Braddy is the other.
Ellis is known as Grambling's man for seasons and reasons. He also oversaw construction of Grambling's baseball facility, which bears his name and Jones' name, and he was point man in the fundraising campaign for the Eddie Robinson Museum.
"All we tried o do is make a difference in the lives of young men, help them be good citizens and represent the community in their profession," Ellis says. "Hiring me at Grambling was one of the greatest things in my life."