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Mike Ellis: the networker

Gophers’ executive associate athletics director Mike Ellis is one of the most connected men in college basketball.
Gophers executive associate athletics director Mike Ellis shows his thank-you cards in his office at Bierman Field Athletic Building on Thursday. Ellis is one of the founding members of Villa 7, a networking event to introduce assistant coaches to potential employers.
Image by Chelsea Gortmaker
Gophers executive associate athletics director Mike Ellis shows his thank-you cards in his office at Bierman Field Athletic Building on Thursday. Ellis is one of the founding members of Villa 7, a networking event to introduce assistant coaches to potential employers.

Mike Ellis’ desk is littered with thank-you notes — each card representing a different athletics department ranging from California to Florida.

College basketball programs across the country have a reason to be thankful for Ellis, the Gophers’ executive associate athletics director.

In 2004, he founded Villa 7 — an event that allows Division I assistant coaches to network with athletics administrators. In the 10 years that followed, well over 100 men’s and women’s assistants from Villa 7 have gotten jobs as head coaches.

While he was an athletics administrator at Virginia Commonwealth University, Ellis used the connections he made at Villa 7 to hire Florida assistant coach Anthony Grant in 2006. And three years later, when Grant went to Alabama, Ellis and athletics director Norwood Teague selected Shaka Smart, another Florida assistant coach, to replace Grant.

Smart quickly catapulted underdog VCU to the Final Four in 2011. One year later, Teague left for Minnesota, and Ellis quickly followed suit.

Since then, Ellis has used his connections to help Teague hire Richard Pitino and Marlene Stollings as Minnesota’s head basketball coaches.

“Who’s really good, and who’s good because of the shirt they wear? There’s a lot of guys and ladies out there that are good because their shirt has the right school on it,” Ellis said. “Our job is to find the people that will be good with the University of Minnesota on their shirt.”

The networker

Shortly after arriving on the University of North Carolina’s campus as a freshman in 1985, Ellis became a student manager for the men’s basketball team under Dean Smith. When Smith retired in 1997, he was the NCAA’s winningest coach.

Spending time with one of the game’s best coaches helped lead Ellis to a long career in college basketball.

“Coach Smith was hugely responsible for my ability to get into the profession,” Ellis said. “He had a profound influence on each and every one of us.”

Teague, who was a student employee in the sports information department, was just down the hall from the basketball office at North Carolina.

Ellis described a young Teague as driven and focused on the future. And now, Teague calls Ellis his confidant.

“There’s probably no one more networked in college basketball than Mike that’s not a coach,” Teague said. “I lean on him hard, and he has a tremendous impact on what we do.”

After college, Ellis worked as an administrative assistant for USA Basketball’s 1988 Olympic team and took a job at VCU as an assistant coach later that year. He switched to athletics administration in 2003, and Teague joined VCU in 2006.

Ellis spent 24 years at VCU, but shortly after Teague left for Minnesota, so did his partner.

“Norwood’s different than most ADs,” Ellis said. “I wouldn’t have come this far for a guy that I didn’t really believe in.”

Villa 7

A clock sits behind Ellis’ desk at his office in the Bierman Field Athletic Building. The timepiece, carved by his son in a woodshop class, loosely resembles a Nike swoosh. While it may not be perfect, the clock expresses Ellis’ appreciation for the simple things in life.

But the clock exemplifies a contrasting side to the man who once hosted a networking event at an upscale suite in the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

In 2004, Ellis occupied the Mirage’s Villa No. 7 — equipped with its own putting green and private pool — for what he called a three-hour “glorified networking session.”

Thirty of college basketball’s brightest assistant coaches and about 30 administrators attended, Ellis said.

“I would say that I’m a connector, and I wanted to help people get jobs,” Ellis said of his motivation to start Villa 7. “There were guys out there missing opportunities because people just didn’t know them.”

Those involved raved to Ellis about the event, asking him to do it again.

Every year, the conference expands, focusing not just on networking but also professional development. Head coaches, media members and retired coaches have all attended and held lectures. Trainers have demonstrated different basketball drills.

But perhaps the most influential piece of Villa 7 is its interviewing portion. Ellis and company select 10 assistants they feel are closest to being ready for head coaching gigs, and then they conduct rigorous practice interviews.

With a camera recording, the panelists fire questions at the coaches.

“We go at them. The idea is to create an uncomfortable feeling,” Ellis said. “They’re sweating. … I’ve seen coaches cry in the room.”

This year, the interviewers were Ellis, Teague and Minnesota deputy athletics director Beth Goetz.

Villa 7 as a whole has a strong Gophers presence nowadays, with both men’s and women’s assistants in attendance as well. The ties Ellis made in the industry through Villa 7 have allowed him to handpick Minnesota’s basketball coaches.

“I think it’s given us a great look into the next great coaches in the country,” Ellis said.

Selecting a coach

Stollings tried to receive an invitation to Villa 7 for years before she attended in 2010.

One year later, she was the head coach at Winthrop University. In 2012, she sat down with Ellis for an interview to be VCU’s new coach.

“By the time you’ve gotten an interview with Mike, he probably knows most of the ins and outs about you,” Stollings said. “He’s a go-getter.”

Shortly after hiring Stollings at VCU, Ellis left for Minnesota. And when Pam Borton was fired last March, Stollings stood out as a prospective candidate for the position.

“When we start a search, we’re way down the path because of the contacts and information that we have,” Ellis said.

Ellis’ phone holds a list of traits he looks for in a candidate, which provides a framework for coaching searches. He said he wants someone that’s a critical thinker, resilient and self-aware, among other things.

“I don’t think he’s too excited about arrogance and people who are caught up in themselves,” Stollings said. “I think he’s looking for quality individuals who care about other people.”

But Ellis also looks for candidates that are high-energy and have their careers in front of them. He said it’s important to find someone who works as hard as if they were looking for another job.

“If you’re great where you’re at [and] you do a good job, good things are going to follow,” said assistant men’s coach Ben Johnson, who has gone to Villa 7 the past two years.

Pitino was never invited to Villa 7, but he came up often in conversations when Ellis helped spearhead Minnesota’s head coaching search in 2013. In the end, Florida head coach Billy Donovan — who helped mentor Grant, Smart and Pitino — was a resource for Minnesota.

“He still gives me a hard time about it,” Ellis said of Pitino. “‘You frickin’ never put me in Villa 7, but you want me to come coach your basketball team?’”

But now that Ellis helped Teague hire Pitino, Minnesota’s young coach is surrounded by a duo of
basketball-centric administrators whose relationships with college basketball started nearly 30 years ago at a storied program.

“With [Ellis] and Norwood, they understand our sport. That’s not always the case with athletics directors,” Pitino said. “These two guys have got basketball backgrounds.”

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