Bryan Ellis always knew he wanted to go into the family business.
He knew it when he was kid, watching his father, Ricky Ellis, coach high school football in Georgia. He knew it when he was quarterbacking Peach County High to a Georgia state championship in 2006. And he knew it during a dizzying journey through college football as a quarterback at UAB.
While he’s far from grizzled veteran status, Ellis knows well the life of a college football coach, currently serving as the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach at Georgia Southern.
“This is the best profession in the world, but it’s a very unique profession,” said Ellis, who returns to Birmingham this weekend with Georgia Southern when the Eagles take on UAB at Protective Stadium. “We joke and say we’re the only profession in the world that everybody thinks they can do. That’s the truth, and that’s okay. We are in an entertainment industry. We’re here to entertain the fans and try to help these young men grow up to be men. Football is a game, but it teaches you so many things about life, about when it gets hard, about not quitting, about the guy next to you is counting on you do to do your job, about accountability, about punctuality. It’s a neat game. To get to be a part of that, I don’t take lightly. I joke that every meal I’ve ever eaten in my life has been put on the table because of the game of football.”
In the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of football coaching, what’s most important is the job that’s he doing now. He is the offensive coordinator for a Georgia Southern offense that is in the upper stratosphere early in the season. The Eagles are second in the country in total offense (573 yards per game), fourth in pass offense (411 ypg) and fifth in scoring offense (52 points per game). Quarterback Kyle Vantrease, a sixth-year senior transfer from Buffalo, is second in the country in passing yards per game with 388.
At 2-0, with a national attention-grabbing win at Nebraska, partly because it was the final straw for Cornhusker coach Scott Frost, times are good in Statesboro under first-year head coach Clay Helton.
“We try to build what we do offensively around the quarterback,” Ellis said. “We try to figure out what does the quarterback do well, what can he handle, what does he execute well, what does he like. And then you try and go do those things and build your offense around that. Fortunately, for us, I think we’ve got a really, really good signal caller and a really good quarterback, who is playing at a high level right now. It’s fun to be part of that, it’s fun to continue to push that and continue to get him to grow.”
In the moving van world of coaching, he’s been relatively stable, even though his path has nearly taken him from coast to coast. He’s been with four programs in 11 seasons, including two years as a graduate assistant coach at UAB following his playing days. His first stop after leaving UAB was Western Kentucky, where he served as offensive quality control coach under offensive coordinator Tyson Helton on Jeff Brohm’s staff. He was promoted to a full-time position as running back coach in 2015 and served as the Hilltoppers’ passing game coordinator and receivers coach in 2016.
In 2017, he made the leap to Southern California, where he spent two seasons on Clay Helton’s staff at USC. The lifestyle adjustment – moving from the hills of Kentucky to South Central Los Angeles – wasn’t as difficult as you would imagine.
“I’m a Georgia boy, and I love this place, but I lived in three or four different small towns throughout my life,” Ellis said. “I moved around my whole life. I kind of compare it to being an Army brat. I have never been tied to a place. When it’s time, in this job that I do, whether I live in Los Angeles, California; Birmingham, Alabama; Bowling Green, Kentucky (or) Statesboro, Georgia, I’m in a 12 foot by 10 foot room with a big screen and a remote in my hand, regardless of where I am. The job is the same. The way I look at it, as long as my kids and my family are happy, my job is very similar wherever I was at.”
Two years later, he was back at Western Kentucky, where he spent two seasons as the offensive coordinator before being bumped to co-offensive coordinator last season. This year, he’s in Statesboro, Georgia, once again on Clay Helton’s staff.
One constant in this entire football odyssey has been the Helton family. Kim Helton was the offensive coordinator and Tyson Helton was his position coach at UAB during Ellis’ playing days. All of his coaching jobs, other than as a graduate assistant at UAB, have come on the staffs of Tyson and Clay Helton.
“I don’t know that there’s negative word to say about any of them,” Ellis said. “A lot of people, when you start to face some adversity, you turn, you turn your back, you start to blame. You deal with a Helton, that’s not what you’re going to get. They’re always going to look in the mirror. They’re always going to say ask yourself, what would you have done different, how would you fix it. That’s an important role in my life now.”
For the second time as a coach, Ellis returns to a city this weekend that played a big role in his life. He met his wife, Janie, when both were students at UAB, and they now have two young children. His best season at UAB came in 2010 when he threw for 2,940 yards with 25 touchdowns in 11 games with nine starts.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Ellis said when asked what UAB means to him. “I thank the Lord every day that I got the opportunity to go to school there. I look back at the men, the coaches I played for, and it was tough because we didn’t have a lot of success. That’s what everyone sees. To the casual fan, that’s what they think this is all about, the wins and the losses.”
Ellis said he viewed it differently.
“You look at a man like Neil Callaway, a man like Coach [Tommy] West, Coach Kim Helton, Coach Tyson Helton, Coach Will Friend, Coach [Tim] Bowens,” Ellis said. “The men, the role models, that I got to see every day, is what’s important. I chose this profession to be in the same profession they’re in, so what I was picking up and taking from those guys is probably a little different than some others. I’m just thankful I got to be a part of that. Do I wish we would have won a little more and things like that? Absolutely I do. But, I can’t put into the words the friendships I still have, the memories of Birmingham. To be honest with you, my wife and I joke all the time, we hope to one day end up in Birmingham when we’re old and gray and not working anymore. We both thought that highly of that town and that city.”
He then took a quick view of the program as a former player.
“It's really, really cool, honestly, to see UAB doing it the right way now,” Ellis said. “We always knew, that if you just gave it a chance, what it could become. You look at the city, the university, everything about that place right now is just ready to take off. I hope they don’t play great on Saturday but, after that, I wish them nothing but the best. Coach [Bryant] Vincent and I are really, really good friends and I think the world of him. That place is special, it’s a neat place.”
Not long after saying that, it was time for Ellis to get back to continue game-planning ways to attack his alma mater on Saturday. Just before he did that, he was asked if he hoped his career path included a head coaching job.
“I don’t want to be one today, but at some point I’d love to be a head football coach,” Ellis said. “Absolutely. I enjoy the leadership side of it. I enjoy trying to build the culture and team aspect of it. Yeah, I'd love to be one at some point. Right now, I really enjoy where I’m at, I really enjoy our players. Being back in this part of the world, football is extremely important to these people.”
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