Father of JSU athletics’ Ellis helped Tigers win

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 16, 2002

[04/16/02]Tellis Burthorne Jr. and Lucinda Ellis had five children together in 65 years of marriage. The sixth was T.B.’s alone.

During a 70-year-plus affiliation with Jackson State, T.B. Ellis served as JSU’s athletic director from 1949-77 and oversaw the growth of the JSU athletic program from a small school with a non-existent budget to a Southwestern Athletic Conference powerhouse. He coached several sports, sometimes paying for equipment and supplies out of his own pocket, and was more proud of the number of graduates than the number of pro players from his teams.

For all of his contributions, Ellis, “The Father of Jackson State Athletics,” will be posthumously inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame on Friday. Ellis died in 2000 at the age of 87.

“He took this program that was very small and nurtured it, and watched it grow,” said Ellis’ son, T.B. Ellis III. “It was basically another family member.”

Ellis was more than just a coach and AD, however. His family recalls a man who always made time for them, no matter how hectic his schedule.

“Daddy stayed busy, but he seemed to always make time. He always took time for us. He always made all our games,” said Sidney Ellis, T.B. Ellis’ son.

When he couldn’t be home, he often took the family to games. On weekends, they would usually retreat to the Delta on fishing trips.

“My best memories are the times we were out fly fishing. Weekends were family times,” T.B. Ellis III said. “We’d have little contests to see who could catch the most fish. No matter how hard we tried, he would always be an easy winner.”

The worlds of home and sport sometimes overlapped the elder Ellis was his son’s punting coach when T.B. Ellis III played at JSU 1961-65, and both Sidney and T.B. Ellis III played football at JSU but in the end, nothing carried over from the field to the homefront.

“We’d stay at practice and punt, and he’d work me so hard that I was worn out for the regular practice,” T.B. Ellis III said with a laugh. “He kept them separate. It was hard because of the demands on him, but he did a good job of keeping them separate.”

It may have been easier to keep them separated since the two facets of life were so intertwined.

The elder T.B. Ellis was born in Vicksburg, but grew up in Jackson and graduated from Jackson College’s High School Department, a high school operated at the school that would later become Jackson State, in 1930.

A good athlete, he lettered in football, basketball and baseball at Jackson College 1930-31, and was quarterback and captain on the school’s football team in 1931.

He later transferred to Morehouse College in Atlanta where he was an All-South Central Athletic Conference quarterback in 1934 and went on to receive his Masters in Education at Boston University before returning to JSU in 1939.

When he came home to Mississippi, he quickly began a love affair with JSU athletics that would see his “baby” grow and last the rest of his life.

He was hired as JSU’s football and basketball coach in 1939, and had only one assistant. Although he loved sports and coaching, T.B. Ellis III said his father didn’t have a choice about tackling his new profession.

“There was no one else to coach it. Either he coached it or it didn’t get done,” T.B. Ellis III said with a laugh.

After serving in the Army air corps during World War II, Ellis Sr. returned to JSU and coached the football team 1946-51. He compiled a 31-21-2 record and was selected SCAC Coach of the Year in 1949.

Although there was plenty of success on the field, it came at a price for Ellis. JSU’s athletic budgets were so small, he often paid for supplies out of his own pocket. On an already small salary, that meant some sacrifices had to be made at home.

“He would take his money and buy supplies, because Jackson State didn’t have any money to give him,” Lucinda Ellis said. “Salaries were very small. It did make it a hardship at home, especially when he went off to school in Boston. But somehow we made it through.”

After stepping down as football coach, Ellis continued to coach baseball and basketball and oversaw JSU’s acceptance into the NAIA in 1954 and the SWAC and NCAA in 1957.

During his long tenure as athletic director, which ended in 1977, JSU won 18 SWAC championships in seven different sports, and the basketball team made the NCAA or NAIA playoffs seven times. In 1977, the outdoor track team won the NAIA national championship, and he helped to introduce women’s basketball to the school in 1975.

“He was proud that it was a well-balanced program. Not just football and basketball, but track and golf and the women’s programs as well,” Sidney Ellis said. “He was proud to get the program to that point.”

For all the athletic success JSU had, however, Ellis was more proud of the Tigers’ academic prowess.

“One thing he was most proud of was the high number of graduates. He made sure student-athletes applied themselves and did graduate,” Sidney Ellis said, adding that the athletic success also raised the profile of JSU. “So much attention is paid to the athletic program, especially if it’s a winning program, that it helped Jackson State receive attention in positive ways and keep Jackson State in the attention of the public.”

Ellis’ influence trickled down to all levels of the program and set a good example, said JSU football coach Robert Hughes, who also played football at the school in the mid-1960s.

“I thought he was a man among men because of the things he did and what he stood for,” Hughes said. “All of us head coaches, assistant coaches and so forth came under his leadership, and I think he did a great job with us.”

Ellis’ influence at the school continues to be felt today.

He’s a member of several halls of fame, including JSU’s. The JSU athletic program is consistently one of the best in the SWAC in all sports. The school’s health, physical education and recreation complex bears his name. And his charitable work touched countless lives.

“I never cease to be amazed by his former students and how well they liked him,” T.B. Ellis III said. “They held him in high respect.”