When the young University of Hawaii assistant football coaches used to sit around and talk about their dream head coaching jobs in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the marquee schools — USC, Notre Dame, Texas, Ohio State, Alabama, etc. — inevitably came up.
And, then, there was Rich Ellerson and his vision.
"The place he always talked about coaching was West Point," recalls former UH head coach Dick Tomey.
Of course, as Tomey quickly learned in his first staff meeting in Manoa, when a raw graduate assistant had the temerity to argue a point with the head coach, Ellerson is an original.
You didn’t spend much time around Ellerson in his four stints — one as a player and three as an assistant coach — at UH without coming to understand he was someone far from the cookie-cutter mold. Eclectic, deep thinking, quick with a quip, the 56-year old UH alumnus the Warriors will line up against Saturday at Army has always marched to his own drum beat, one seemingly destined to deliver him to West Point.
Born on an Army post in Japan and raised in a globe-trotting family that has produced generals and colonels among four generations of military officers, protecting the line of scrimmage wasn’t how people figured this free spirit would define his commitment to defense.
But after two years at the Naval Academy, Ellerson saw his calling and it wasn’t, as he often puts it, "driving boats."
He says he’ll never forget the look on the commandant’s face the day he made final his decision to resign from Annapolis. "He asked me: ‘And, what do you think you’re going to do now?’" Ellerson recalls.
"I told him, ‘I’m gonna coach (football) and teach, sir,’ " Ellerson said. "I don’t think he was real impressed, but I was lucky because I was all of 19 and I already knew what I wanted to do with my life."
After 10 days of a Pacific Ocean summer training cruise that brought him to Honolulu, he also knew where he wanted to go about learning how to do it: Hawaii.
A two-way performer as an underweight center and linebacker, Ellerson made the first tackle in Aloha Stadium’s inaugural game. But at UH, where he earned two degrees, Ellerson was destined to be far more than an answer to a trivia question. As a defensive assistant and coordinator, he coached some of the Warriors’ best defenses, including coordinating three that led the WAC.
In the process he became a believer in the triple option run by the guy in the next-door office, then-offensive coordinator Paul Johnson. After UH, Ellerson contributed to the Desert Swarm defense with Tomey in Arizona and ventured out on his own, employing varieties of the spread and swarm in head coaching stops at Southern Utah and Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo).
When the Army job opened two years ago, nobody who knew Ellerson was surprised he landed by the Hudson, where his brother John had been a team captain in 1962.
"It was the perfect fit — for them and for him," said Texas associate head coach Duane Akina, who coached with him at UH, in Canada and Arizona. "It is a job he’s always had his eye on and been preparing for."