In order to be successful in sport, a team needs a strong identity and a coach’s philosophy to follow and look up to when they need it. This is exactly what Ian Ellis, Head Coach of the Sussex Thunder believes, and he has invested in a strong philosophy for his team. Coach Ellis shared with me his philosophy as a head coach.
“From a head coach’s perspective my philosophy is very much, football is a dictatorship, and it can’t be anything other than a dictatorship so the person at the top has to set the pace and has to set the feel for the team. If it becomes a democracy you get into a situation where you’ve got 60/70 people all trying to give you their opinion. You’ll never make 60/70 different opinions work”
Coach Ellis continued with, “That’s my philosophy, you lead from the top and take instructions from the top but also, you’re trying to build a family. One of the things I always do is every practice, and every pre-game is to go and shake every player’s hand, ask them how they’re doing, ask about their families and just enter into a conversation.
“If you have a relationship with anyone, they will do more for you rather than if you are very standoff-ish and just tell them what to do.”. There is no doubt that this has worked for the Thunder as they go into their 2021 season with the mission of promotion and a National Championship, but how did Coach Ellis get to this point? I had a chat with him to find out.
Coach Ian Ellis lives and breathes American Football. Coach Ellis has been involved in the game for nearly 40 years and his wealth of knowledge and experiences from his days in at college level, all the way to the NFL and back in the UK to lead the Sussex Thunder. But how did he first got involved with the sport?
“I tried to do rugby and I used to do athletics at secondary school. Then Channel 4 started showing this sport American Football on TV and it just captured my imagination. It was the way the sport was marketed, the whole razzamatazz of what the game looked like, and pretty soon after Channel 4 started showing it teams were springing up all over the place. My best friend at school and I saw an advert saying come and try out for the Crawley Raiders on a Friday night, and we both went. That was sort of November/December in 1983 – and I’ve not managed to leave it alone since.”
A couple of years on from his introduction to the gridiron, Coach Ellis, still at the Crawley Raiders met Don Turner, the Head Coach at Division 3 Bethany College in West Virginia. “There was a group of coaches that were sort of touring around and teaching English guys how to play football. One of them was a guy called Don Turner, who was the head coach at Bethany College. He said, ‘Why don’t you come out and look at the school and we can talk about the possibility of you coming to school at Bethany?’”, Coach Ellis said.
Playing football at Bethany College is not like your Division 1 programmes where you can solely concentrate on football. As Coach Ellis says here, you have to put a lot of academic effort in as well.
“In Division 3 you can’t have an athletic scholarship, you can only have an academic scholarship… I went with the intention of doing physical education as a major and education as a minor with the intention of staying in the states and being a PE coach, that’s what got me there.”
It wasn’t only the academic commitments that demanded a lot from the players, but also the college’s football programme as well. Coach Ellis remembers the main difference between learning the sport in the UK and the US.
“The biggest difference is the perception of how football is viewed and the fact that we played on Saturday and trained five nights a week – so when classes finish at 3 pm you’d then spend the next three hours practising every day.
“It is far more intense, even at a Division 3 school where you are a student first you still practice every weekday, play on a Saturday and Sunday is off, and then you’re back in again on Monday.”
It was during his time at Bethany College when Coach Ellis decided that in order to stay in the sport he loved, his path would be through coaching. “There are a lot of people there who have been playing from much younger and so my thought process led me to think about my longevity in the game in the states.
“At the time when you finish playing college football, if you didn’t play pro football there was no semi-professional football back in the 90s, so it was play for three years and never play again and I didn’t relish that.”
Coach Ellis continued, “So, I decided that if I was going to stay in football my future would be in coaching. That was the intention – how can I make football last longer in my life.”
It wouldn’t be long after this realisation until Coach Ellis had his first coaching job. Whilst studying at Bethany College he took an intern job at a local high school in a town called Follansbee in West Virginia. This wasn’t the end goal however, Coach Ellis wanted to coach with the London Monarch’s in the World League of American Football, little did he know he was going to get an even bigger opportunity, coaching in the NFL.
“I wrote to somebody at labour relations at the NFL and said, ‘I want to get into coaching, I’m an English guy and my intention is to try and get back into the World League, how can I do this?’ – they gave me names of some contacts from about half a dozen teams, one of them being the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“The Buccaneers said to come down a month early, we’ll teach you the playbook. During camp we’ll put you in accommodation at the University of Tampa, you can work training camp with us, and we’ll take it from there.
“When camp finished, I stayed and they put me in a hotel and at this point, the Tampa season ran from August to December because they never made the playoffs, so that was my involvement.”
This wouldn’t be the end of Coach Ellis’s time in the NFL, shortly after finishing his internship with the Buccs, Coach Ellis moved to another NFL Franchise. “Following the 1993 season with the Buccs, the line-backer coach that I’d worked with got me an interview with the Defensive Coordinator at the Dolphins and so I went and did some camp work with the Dolphins, it was only camp with the Dolphins, I spent 1994 camp with the Dolphins.”
Coach Ellis also added, “when I went to the Dolphins the head coach at the time was Don Shula and you know to be an English guy at the age of 24 on the sidelines of NFL games as a coach and to be around practice every day – it was a phenomenal experience.”
Coach Ellis’s time in the NFL was filled with great memories, one of which he shared from his time with the Buccs. “I’m still very friendly with a guy that was a kicker at the Buccaneers, he was called Eddie Murray. Eddie was a long-term kicker at the Detroit Lions… he was at the camp in 93 when I was there.
“So, the first-night coach gave us off Eddie and I decided we would get away from training camp and we would go out and do something just the two of us away for everybody. We went to see a film with Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes, I think it was called Rising Sun. We went to the cinema and the film had already started so we found our seats, watched the film, great film and then when the lights came on and we stood up, probably 90% of the guys from camp had all gone to see this film to get away from each other.
“We all went to get away from each other, but we all went and did the same thing. It was a team trip to the cinema, but we probably could have got it cheaper with a team ticket.’
As you can imagine being an Englishmen coaching an American sport in America in the 90s wasn’t always the easiest job, especially when working at school level. Coach Ellis shared a story of what he was faced with during his time coaching at high school. “Yes so, the first time, bear in mind this was the 90s, so Englishmen in American football was not a thing. When I did the high school job the first push back I got was teenagers saying to their coaches ‘What possibly could this English guy know to be able to coach me’ – So that was the first thing.”
In the NFL however, this wasn’t such a problem. “In the pro game not so much, actually they were really accommodating and it’s a profession, so you are working colleagues, so they were far more open. That was the pushback really with the younger guys at high school they kind of pushed against the fact that I was an English guy.”
A key element to being successful in any industry is perseverance and overcoming problems. Coach Ellis shared with me how he managed to do this during his time coaching at high school, “I just worked hard, I said give me a chance. I was an English guy who played at a relatively high level in the UK, I got myself a scholarship… As my role progressed and as people got used to me, the accent actually disappeared and they see you as a coach rather than an accent.”
Moving into 2021, the Sussex Thunder have received a record number of committed players at 150. Coach Ellis and the Thunder believe this has given them a fantastic opportunity for promotion.
“Bringing in 150 people this year means that in either 2021 or 2022 we will have the best opportunity to win a National Championship and get back to the Premier Division that we’ve probably ever had.
“The other thing is with that many people, looking at them and evaluating talent is much harder… That’s the job of the coach, right? Trying to weigh-up and trying to mould together great talent with great workers. If you can get a happy medium where they can work together and bond, then you’ve got a great opportunity to do great things”.
An unfortunate consequence of having this enormous squad number is picking who plays and who doesn’t, a job Coach Ellis takes no pleasure in doing.
“It’s a terrible job, it’s an absolutely horrendous job… That becomes very difficult to have conversations with people and say we’ve looked at what we have to do, and you are not going to play, it’s very tough. But this is what the game is actually like.
“People who want to play American Football want to have as much of a realistic feel as possible. If they were at a school and came on as a walk-on, the chances of them dressing up for game day would be very slim. So what people are going to get with the Sussex Thunder this year is a football programme that’s as realistic to being either at a high-performing college programme or a professional programme.”
As you can see, ensuring players get the most authentic American Football experience has been key to the popularity of the Thunder amongst British players, but this isn’t the only aspect of the Thunder that makes them so popular.
“We have a great setup and a great reputation. A lot of the people that have come to play for us this year have played at other programmes and they have been on the other side of the field and they’ve seen what we do.
“We’ve changed a fair number of our coaching staff this year and now we’ve got coaches for every position. What happens at most teams is that they don’t usually carry that number of coaches. You know they’ll go to practise, but they’re not pushed to develop or pushed to be the best player they can be.
“We’re going to give these guys the best opportunity to be the best player they can be and help them to develop. That might mean that they don’t play in 2021, but they might then be an even better player by 2022.” Coach Ellis added.
It isn’t easy being a member of a team, as we heard from Coach Ellis there are so many factors to consider for a successful season. But for any rookies or people looking to branch out to a new sport, Coach Ellis has lined out what it takes to be a prosperous member of the Thunder family.
“Somebody who comes in and is prepared to work hard and sacrifice for the greater good… I don’t want people to come who just want to be carried and say they’re a part of the Sussex Thunder. But if every one of them fights for a starting spot week in, week out. Whether or not they win a starting spot in week one, at some point during the year they will get a chance to play. Once you’ve got that opportunity to play, they become much better players.
“I think you’ve got to look at the long game, you’re not always going to get instant results, but we will help you to develop to be a great player going forward… We want to help people and give them the tools to reach their goals.”