By T. Scott Boatright
This weekend’s celebration started early on Thursday night as a reception celebrating the jersey retirement of former Grambling State baseball coach and Baseball Coaches of America Hall of Famer Wilbert Ellis was held at Squire Creek Country Club in Choudrant.
The No. 30 jersey of former Grambling State President and baseball coach Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones and Ellis’ No. 30 jersey was retired during a pregame ceremony at 5:30 p.m. Friday before the start of the Tigers’ three-game baseball series against Southern.
On Thursday night, friends of Ellis gathered to offer congratulations and stories about their relationship with the coach who led GSU to three SWAC Championships and also guided the Tigers to three NCAA Tournament appearances en route to a 740–462–1 career record after assuming the head coaching role upon Jones’ retirement in 1977.
Leading off was local businessman James Davison, whose friendship with Ellis goes back to their childhoods.
“Both of us came into this world in 1937 and it’s just good for both of us to still be here in the world,” Davison said. “We lived great lives and a friendship that couldn’t have been any better.
“We go back a long time. My mother and his mother were good friends and I’ve known this rascal ever since we were about 12 years old, so we’ve been together more than 70 years now. It’s been a good run. I love him and I appreciate so much y’all honoring him in this way. Let’s keep on taking good care of him.”
Lincoln and Union Parish District Attorney John Belton, a longtime friend who also works alongside Ellis with the Friends of the Eddie Robinson Museum, called Ellis both a friend and a father-figure.
“I don’t just call him ‘Coach,’ I call him ‘Dad’ as well,” Belton said. “I am so blessed in so many ways, because outside of my parents, he has played a big role in making the man I am today. Without him I don’t think I’d be where I am today.”
Belton also spoke of the No. 31 jersey Ellis wore.
“That number is significant in so many ways,” Belton said. “For one, Moses is mentioned in 31 of the 66 books of the Bible. Moses is one of the greatest leaders that ever walked the face of this Earth. But he and Coach Ellis have a lot in common – both are servant leaders. Coach is very humble just like Moses. Coach, you don’t boast or brag, you just walk the walk and talk the talk …
“Coach, I strive to be like you. I strive to be a man worth respecting, a man worth imitating and a man worth following. I’m not there yet, but I’m following you, and you’re there. So I thank God for you, and I love you.”
Former Jackson State coach Robert Braddy was also on hand to honor his old rival
“Mr. Belton threw me off for a minute when he said Coach Ellis didn’t brag or boast,” Braddy joked as he started his turn at the microphone. I know better. I’ll have to tell y’all about that sometime.”
“They say that Coach says that he’s an ordinary guy just like everyone else,” Braddy said. “But I can assure you that he certainly is not an ordinary man and has certainly made an impact on a lot of individuals, especially myself.
“I began coaching at Jackson State in 1973 and I remember you telling me that the biggest room in a house is the room for improvement,” Braddy said. “My brother was my assistant coach in 1973 and we came to play Grambling and my brother, who had asthma, got ill.
“And I called Coach Ellis, and he came over and took my brother to the doctor. And that certainly made an impact on me. The next day Prez (Jones) found out and told Coach Rob (Eddie Robinson, who was GSU’s athletics director at the time). And he asked why I didn’t call him. I could see right then that they all cared about people. And that had a lasting impact on my life.”
Current GSU baseballer Trevor Hatton came up and expressed his thanks for the words of encouragement talking to the team as often as he does.
Ellis’ sister Resie Lampkin spoke, revealing the family’s insight on the Grambling Legend Hall of Famer.
“Very rarely in life do you meet and rub shoulders with true leaders of men,” Lampkin said. “Coach, you are one of those men. He has impacted the lives of thousands of young men aspiring for greatness in the baseball talent arena. And I must say, he continues to do so, even today.
“Any of those men would tell you that Coach, or Cap, whatever you choose to call him, was about developing their character first, their skills second and doing so, acknowledging God as the main focus.
“And any of those players would tell you that at the start of every season, Coach would start the season off with a quote from Martin Luther King (Jr.) – ‘The time is always right’ – a quote that many never forgot.”
She closed with a personal message to her brother.
“We want everybody to know that we are proud of what you did,” Lampkin said. “And that baseball was not your life and is not who you are. Who you are is a statue of a man of God. Was Wilbert a perfect man? By no means, no. But to the critics and naysayers, they don’t name a baseball field after a critic, do they?
“Wilbert, we’re all proud of you and the path that you have taken. I am honored to say that I am your sister.”
Current GSU baseball coach Davin Pierre heaped his praises on Ellis before the legendary coach himself took the mic.
Ellis told a story about learning he had been named baseball coach at Grambling over the phone from a friend who read it in the news while Ellis was out on a baseball recruiting trip for GSU.
“That’s how I found out, I was out recruiting for Grambling,” Ellis said. “It didn’t matter whether I was going to get the job or not because I was doing it for Grambling.
And as he closed out his turn at the mic, Ellis offered thanks to God for bringing everyone together to honor him.
“I want to thank God for all of you being here tonight,” Ellis said. “It makes me feel real good to have so many friends to come out and honor me as Grambling retires No. 30 for Prez and my No. 31. Prez asked me to wear his No. 30 for a while when I became head coach and I did for a while, because I always listened to what Prez said because he signed my check.
“Thank you all for being here. God bless America. God bless Grambling and Lincoln Parish, and God bless you.”