By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For Keith Gavin, the move was one he had to make. Gavin couldn’t pass up the financial package offered to him by Oklahoma, which has won seven NCAA team titles in wrestling, or the chance to work with one of his former national-team coaches.
Steve Garland doesn’t blame Gavin, a Virginia assistant coach for two seasons, for leaving. For Garland, though, the timing of his departure was less than ideal.
“As bad as I’ve ever been through in all the years I’ve been doing this,” said Garland, who’s in his 11th season as head coach at UVA, his alma mater.
“It was just, `Oh my goodness, what do you do?’ This was September. We were already two, three weeks into school.”
Word of the opening at Virginia spread quickly in the wrestling world. Missouri associate coach Alex Clemsen, who had worked for Garland at Virginia, called his former boss and raved about Mark Ellis. Then Missouri’s head coach, Brian Smith, called Garland and raved about Ellis.
“And then 10 minutes later I got a call from [Chattanooga head coach] Heath Eslinger, who I am really close with, and Heath was like, `Steve, he worked for me. He’s a great guy,’ ” Garland recalled.
“So between Heath and Alex and Brian I was like, `All right, I need to get a hold of Mark.’ ”
Garland telephoned Ellis and set up an interview in Charlottesville. A couple days after Ellis’ visit to UVA, Garland offered him the job. Ellis accepted, and he started work in Onesty Hall late last month.
“It couldn’t have turned out better,” said Garland, whose associate head coach is Jordan Leen.
Ellis, 30, was a two-time All-American as a heavyweight at Missouri, where he later served as a volunteer assistant coach. As a junior in 2008-09, Ellis became only the second wrestler in program history to win an NCAA title. But he was not always so dominant as a Tiger.
“His first couple years here, he was getting beat by the ’97-pounder, the ’84-pounder, the ’74-pounder, the ’65-pounder, the ’57-pounder,” Smith said, “but when I go through all those names, we had All-Americans at all those weights. Great wrestlers.
“So all these guys were killing him, and he’d be like, `I’m a heavyweight, and I’m getting beat by everybody.’ But I said, `You’re learning.’ And it was hard for him. He would get really frustrated, but he would always come back in the room after that frustration and he would want to learn and want to get better.
“Every day he was like, `I’ve got to be a national champ. I’ve got to be a national champ.’ And he did it. He wrote it down, he believed it, and he was just so passionate about it.”
Ellis, who’s from Peculiar, Mo., about 30 miles south of Kansas City, originally planned to play football at Mizzou, and he joined that program as a recruited walk-on.
One day during his first summer in Columbia, however, he was on the football field with his teammates while the Missouri wrestlers ran in the stadium to the point of exhaustion.
“The football players were talking about how crazy [the wrestlers] are,” Ellis recalled, “and I remember thinking to myself, `I think I’m one of those guys. I’m supposed to be up there puking and passing out and stuff like that, not standing here watching practice.’ ”
So he gave up football and joined the wrestling team. After graduating from Missouri in 2010, he pursued a professional career in MMA. But knee and shoulder injuries slowed him, and Ellis decided to return to Missouri for medical treatment.
In Columbia, Smith persuaded him to assist with the wrestling program, and “so I decided to coach and try to get better [physically],” Ellis said. “That kind of started my coaching career.”
After a little more than a year on Missouri’s staff, he became a full-time assistant in 2013-14 at Chattanooga, which won the Southern Conference title that season. A year as an assistant at Grand Canyon followed, and then Ellis left coaching to join his family’s business, J.M. Neil and Associates.
“But even from Day One, I was missing coaching,” Ellis said.
He spoke regularly with his mentor, Smith, and “any time I talked to him he would tell me, `I think you need to be in coaching,’ ” Ellis said.
Smith said: “When I see successful coaches, they’re people that had to go through difficult times and failure and had to really earn what they had. And Mark has gone through that and knows how to do it. So that’s what’s going to make him a special coach.
“Plus, I think he’s really invested. He wants to build a relationship with the student-athlete.”
Ellis’ ties to the Missouri program added to his appeal for Garland. The Tigers placed sixth at last season’s NCAA championships.
“What Mark brings to the table is being a part of one of the best cultures in the history of our sport and something he helped create,” Garland said. “The Tiger culture is amazing. What Brian Smith’s created there and what those guys believe in, it’s amazing.
“To me, that was the biggest selling point for bringing [Ellis] in. I want that here, because we’re trying to create our own culture that’s the new standard. We have the horses in the stable, the young kids, to create something pretty special. And so we want to learn from Mark: How exactly did Brian do that? What does this look like day to day? What does it look like practicality-wise? And then we’ll go from there and implement our own system.”
Ellis, who weighed about 245 pounds when he won his NCAA championship, is around 220 these days. He works out during practice with wrestlers who compete in the heavier weight classes, including 197-pound Chance McClure, whom Ellis recruited as a Chattanooga assistant.
“I’m hopeful with him,” Ellis said. “He seems like he gets it, and it seems like he’s not afraid to work hard and get tired. That’s really the biggest thing.”
Ellis and his wife, Nicole, have a young daughter, and they recently moved to western Albemarle County, not far from where Garland and his family live.
“I recruited him to come out to Crozet, because I think it’s the greatest place on earth,” Garland said, laughing.
Ellis, who’s fit and healthy, has already made his presence known in Virginia’s wrestling room. His days as a competitor, though, are over.
“I’m a full-time coach,” he said. “If you’re competing, you’ve got to be kind of selfish. You’ve got to get your own needs met.
“It can be done, I think, but I’m coaching. Coaching’s my passion. I love helping guys reach their goal.”