Ellison finds early coaching success with title
Dee Ellison wasn’t supposed to be the head coach, let alone be standing on a ladder cutting down the net.
“I actually turned it down like four times,” Ellison said about the offer to start the Champion Christian College women’s basketball program from scratch.
But a former teammate’s persistence paid off and in his second season, Ellison guided the Lady Tigers to the National Christian College Athletic Association Division II national championship earlier this month.
It’s the latest stop on a basketball journey almost 15 years in the making and each place provided a little something to give the former Texoma Christian School standout his first opportunity to be a head coach and have immediate success.
The capper on this stretch — the 87-81 victory over Arlington Baptist, which was the top seed and five-time defending national champion, at the NCCAA Tournament in Joplin, Mo. to claim the crown.
Champion Christian finished 18-4 and proved its inaugural success was no fluke.
Even though the Lady Tigers lost to Arlington Baptist four times last season, including in the national title game for the Association of Christian College Athletics, of which Champion is an independent member, they were ready with everything on the line this time.
“I think losing those games made our girls more determined,” Ellison said. “Confidence played a big key.”
Confidence is something Ellison has shown throughout his career. He was a four-year starter at TCS, winning TAPPS state titles as a freshman and then as a senior under his father, Mark, who switched over to lead the girls program after the latter title in 2008 and has been in charge every since, winning five titles and two other trips to state in that span.
From there it was playing at Grayson for a year and then to York College in Nebraska. After using up his eligibility, he went halfway around the world to play in Australia for a season with the Bulleen Boomers based in Melbourne. Had Ellison gone back for a second year, he would have been teammates with current 76ers All-Star Ben Simmons.
Instead he was back at York and joined the coaching staff for a couple of years. For the 2014-15 season he was an assistant at La Joya High School in Avondale, Ariz., before returning to TCS and spending four years assisting current Eagles head coach Nate Langenbahn.
Then Leonard Epps, his former teammate at York and the athletic director and men’s basketball coach at Champion Christian, came calling.
Champion Christian College is located in Hot Springs, Arkansas and was started in 2005. There are fewer than 75 students enrolled, it doesn’t offer athletic scholarships and two years ago seemed like an unlikely place for Ellison’s next job.
The school had tried to start a women’s program before, but nothing really materialized. When they prepared to try again, Epps, knew who he wanted to be in charge — Ellison.
After rebuffing Epps’ previous offers, Ellison relented and was leading a college program before turning 30.
“It was definitely mind-blowing at first. I knew it was something I wanted to be,” he said. “I didn’t really have a deadline. I always knew I wanted to be a college coach.”
Ellison had never coached on the girls/women’s side before in his career. And now he was being trusted to start a team from scratch.
“That part was crazy. I liked it because it was all mine but it’s also scary,” Ellison said. “I brought in 10 girls. We were looking everywhere. You’ve got to make it go.”
The Lady Tigers went 19-11, losing to Arlington Baptist in the ACCA national tourney and then in the NCCAA Tournament, Champion Christian won its quarterfinal before losing the next game. It was a finish exceeding even their coach’s initial expectations.
“It was amazing to be able to accomplish that,” said Ellison, who took on the athletic director role starting with this school year. “When we started no one knew what we could do. My expectation Year 1 was to win seven games. I thought that would be a good starting point,” Ellison said.
The path to being in charge has had many influences.
“I take a lot from my dad; he’s been coaching forever and he coached me,” Ellison said.
Outside of the family, there’s Epps, who is now the head coach at Toccoa Falls College, and Langenbahn as well as his coach at York and current Southwest Assemblies of God head coach Delton Deal, who led SAGU to the NAIA Final Four this week, and his former teammate and current York head coach Tree Burks.
“We pick each other’s brains all the time, text every day,” Ellison said. “There’s three plays I stole from Coach Nate I use.”
Odds are at least one of them helped win a national title.