Longtime Allegan tennis coach Gary Ellis retires after 45 seasons
After securing an interview for a teaching and tennis-coaching position at Allegan High School in the spring of 1974, Gary Ellis thought it would be a good idea to do some research.
“Even though I’d grown up in Battle Creek and was living in Kalamazoo (while attending Western Michigan University), I didn’t know exactly where Allegan was,” Ellis said. “I had to look it up on the map.”
Ellis even took a day prior to the interview to make the drive to Allegan in an effort to get acquainted with the surroundings. There was just one problem.
“I couldn’t find the high school,” he said. “Remember, this was pre-GPS days, and I couldn’t find it. I liked what I did see of the town, but I just never made it to the high school.”
Fortunately for Ellis—and the Allegan school system—he managed to locate the high school for the interview.
The rest, as they say, is history, with Ellis helping to firmly establish the Allegan tennis program as one of the best in the state during a tenure spanning 45 seasons.
That tenure as the boys’ tennis coach in Allegan came to an official end recently when Ellis announced his retirement from the post.
“There’s never a perfect time (to retire) because there will always be an incoming senior class you have to leave and you’ll always have a team you’ve already invested in and gotten to know. So it was definitely a hard decision. But it just felt like the right time.”
The fact that Ellis is leaving his successor in a good spot also played a big role in his decision.
The Tigers are coming off a 2018 season during which they won Wolverine Conference and regional championships and finished third at the Division 4 state finals, tying the best ever finish for the program.
“I’m leaving the program in a good place, and that was really important to me,” Ellis said. “I wanted to leave the cupboard full as opposed to leaving it bare. That’s something (former longtime, multi-sport Plainwell coach) Glenn Beier used to tell me all the time. ‘Make sure you leave the cupboard full.’ That’s something I took to heart.”
Tony Fales served as Ellis’ assistant coach for the past 15 seasons.
“I look back at my time coaching with Gary as an absolute honor,” Fales said. “Gary got every boy in the program to believe in himself. He inspired and empowered every team to achieve their full potential. He really cared about his players. It didn’t matter if you were an All-State Player or 12th on the team.
“When you look back at everything Gary has done with the boys’ tennis program, it’s mind blowing on what has been achieved. You don’t see a tennis program like we have here. Allegan is the best small-town tennis program in Michigan and much credit goes to Gary for his tireless commitment to the boys and the love he has for Allegan.”
Ellis’ first exposure to tennis came during a physical education class in middle school.
“I was in seventh grade and I showed up to gym class and they were hitting some tennis balls,” he said. “I took to it right away.”
Thus began a love affair with the sport that saw Ellis play for four years at Battle Creek Central before moving on to Kellogg Community College and finally WMU. Unable to play at WMU during his senior season due to a conflict with his student teaching—“that wasn’t very good planning on my part,” Ellis said—he turned his attention to coaching.
“I got to coach under Jim Cummins at Springfield High School—which isn’t even there any more—and I loved it,” Ellis said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Which led him to Allegan.
“I was actually on my way to my graduation ceremony at Western when the phone rang,” Ellis said. “I wasn’t sure if I should get it or not, but I decided to and I got the news that I’d gotten the job at Allegan. It was a great graduation gift.”
Ellis, who also taught math and history at Allegan High school in addition to having two tenures as athletic director, came to Allegan as the eighth boys’ tennis coach in the program’s 22-year history that dated to 1953.
He inherited a team that was coming off a runner-up showing in the conference, a regional title and an eighth-place finish at the state finals under the guidance of coach Jim Beckstrom. Prior to Beckstrom’s one season, Tom Essenburg led the program for six seasons, guiding the Tigers to the state finals his final four seasons, including a third-place finish in 1971.
Ellis’ inaugural season in 1975 saw the Tigers finish third in the conference and fourth at regionals to just miss out on a trip to the state finals.
The next year, the Tigers won the league title for the first time before winning the program’s third regional title and finishing sixth at the state finals.
That success didn’t carry over to 1977 however, as Allegan finished ninth in the conference and seventh at regionals.
“That was a tough season,” Ellis said. “And it was then that I told myself, ‘Never again.’ Never again were we going to have a season like that.”
During the next three seasons, Allegan finished fourth, fifth and sixth in the league before placing third in 1981.
The 38 seasons that followed saw the Tigers finish either first or second every season but one, with that being a third-place showing in 2014.
All told, Ellis led the Tigers to 30 Wolverine Conference titles, eight runner-up finishes in the league, 12 regional titles, 15 runner-up finishes at regionals and 32 state-finals appearances. Twenty-three of those trips to the state finals included top-10 showings by Allegan.
“We had a lot of success, which was great,” Ellis said. “Every team was different and I enjoyed all of them. The biggest thing was being a part of these young men’s lives trying to help instill some values and lessons in them through their experience in tennis.”
Ellis was also quick to share the credit for the program’s success.
“I had great assistant coaches like Walt Kaechele, Jen Aldrich, Alva Morgan and Tony Fales,” Ellis said. “We’ve also had such great support from parents, the administration and the community as a whole. And of course the players put so much time and effort into it. I’m just glad I could be a small part of everything.”
And the person he credits the most with his success is his wife Connie.
“Connie has been so supportive of me and the program for all these years,” Ellis said. “I owe so much to her. A lot of times I’d get cranky at the beginning of the season with everything going on and she’d give me my space. She was the ultimate tennis mom.”
In addition to coaching the boys’ team for 45 seasons, Ellis also had two stints as the girls’ tennis coach. One of those stints overlapped with the playing days of his daughter, Heather.
“Coaching Heather was the highlight of my coaching career,” Ellis said. “We had the discussions about me being dad at home and coach on the court and there was one time when Heather reminded me that I needed to remember to separate those two things. But it was such a great experience.”
Although Ellis will no longer be coaching at the high school level, he plans to continue helping at the middle school level and during the summer tennis program.
“And I’ll be as involved with the high school program as the new coach wants me to be,” he said. “I just won’t be there every day.”
Ellis has no specific plans now that his autumns are freed up, but he does envision some traveling.
“Connie and I love to travel, so I’m sure we’ll be taking some trips in the fall that we couldn’t when I was coaching,” he said.