In need of a third assistant, Temple basketball head coach John Chaney filled the vacancy with not just any ordinary coach, but city legend Bill Ellerbee.
The longtime coach of national powerhouse Simon Gratz High School, Ellerbee brings a dearth of experience, success and determination to a young team and a finely polished coaching staff.
After spending 32 years teaching at Gratz (his high school alma mater) and coaching basketball for 20of those years, Ellerbee retired this summer because of instability in the public school system.
He compiled over 450 wins in 20 seasons, in addition to six city titles, and left an indelible mark on high school basketball in Philadelphia.
If Ellerbee had his druthers, he still would be coaching at Gratz devoid a teaching position.
However, Public League regulations stipulate that in order to coach at a school, you must also teach at it.
“A lot of changes were going on in the public school system itself,” said Ellerbee from his office in the Liacouras Center.
“And it was just an atmosphere that made you a little apprehensive about continuing in the system.”
Simon Gratz High’s principal Hilderbrand Pelzer said that he explored various options within Public League rules to support Ellerbee staying with Gratz, but these attempts came up short.
“He’s going to bring a strong commitment (to Temple),” Pelzer said. “He was very dedicated here at Gratz, he was never absent, he was here everyday, and worked long hours and was very, very good.”
Although he was content with his difficult decision to retire, the outcome for Ellerbee would be fruitful and fortuitous.
In late August Chaney announced he would hire a third assistant coach, to lessen the weight on his two other coaches Nate Blackwell and Dan Leibowitz.
Ellerbee, a longtime friend and former colleague of Chaney’s at Gratz was offered a golden opportunity to be part of a storied basketball program commandeered by one of college basketball’s greatest minds.
“I don’t think I could have just worked for anybody,” said Ellerbee, referring to Chaney, a legend in his own right, “As far as moving onto a college or university, I think it’s a great opportunity for me.”
While Ellerbee admitted that in previous years colleges had offered him coaching positions, he never felt inclined to take them due to his desire to stay in the city.
But with his tenure over at Gratz and a coveted coaching position beckoning at North Broad, he jumped at a wonderful opportunity.
The hiring of the demure and didactic Ellerbee is a slam-dunk for the team as well.
His resume is more than qualified with a background of copious accolades and championships.
“Obviously as a coach you at look at what he’s done and the young men he’s influenced over the years,” said Bill Bradshaw, Temple’s director of athletics.
“Temple University has an outstanding addition to our athletic program.”
His teams have been recognized nationally by ESPN and The USA Today, when they were crowned national champions in 1993, as well as being named National
Coach of the Year in 1993, and twice chosen as the Pennsylvania Coach of the Year.
In addition to a gaudy winning-streak that peaked at 107 games, his efforts have benefited his players to the college ranks, and some to the pro level, such as the NBA’s Rasheed Wallace and former Temple Owl, Aaron McKie.
Ellerbee’s coaching prowess and success is comparable to Chaney.
Also like his new boss, Ellerbee is fiery, trenchant, and commands respect.
Ellerbee’s leadership and assertiveness was so effective at Gratz, that during Rasheed Wallace’s playing days, he accounted for only one technical foul as a four-year starter.
These days Wallace’s magnificent play in the NBA is overshadowed by his penchant for technical fouls, a dubious statistic he always leads the league in.
Asked if he could do the same for the irascible temper of Chaney during games, Ellerbee laughed, “Absolutely not, because its a completely different kind of situation.”
And it is a different kind of situation for Ellerbee as the third assistant, but he is up for the new challenges.
“Something is going on everyday,” Ellerbee said.
“The things that are going on are to help the kids, with tutoring, conditioning, monitoring of classes, it is so much.”
“The further I go along the more responsibilities I’m going to get, and that will alleviate Nate and Dan from some of their responsibilities.”
Ellerbee’s great rapport with young kids is one of his best assets, and conducive to his prolonged success.
Ellerbee said, “You can’t get things done unless you have that ability to relate to kids.
One of the things when dealing with young people is what you’re willing to accept from them.”
As Ellerbee adapts to a new place, and a new team, he is remaining guarded about his role with the players and his fellow assistants.
He is being prudent and observant right now, and learning the nuances of his auxiliary position.
He understands the importance of gaining trust and faith from the players.
Going into the 2002-2003 season will be a transition for the Owls.
After missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 seasons an invitation back to the Big Dance is imperative.
The irreplaceable scoring of Lynn Greer and formidable presence of Kevin Lyde (both graduated) will surely be missed, but Ellerbee has high expectations.
“If you didn’t have great expectations you shouldn’t be doing this job, because when you work with young people there’s always peaks and valleys,” Ellerbee said.
According to Ellerbee, despite lacking size, this year’s squad will possess an exorbitant amount of speed and athleticism.
In addition, he is excited about the immediate impact of newcomers Keith Butler, Antwayne Robinson, and Maurice Collins.
“I think those guys will be able to help,” he said.
“And when you bring in new players and they can contribute right away, what it does is it adds depth to the team.”
Depth on the roster never hurts, and the same can be said with the coaching staff, which now is probably the deepest in college basketball.
Jason Haslam can be reached at Jasonhaslam@yahoo.com