Date of Birth: August 8, 1910
Hometown: Ashland, KY
One of Kentucky’s truly great all-around athletes, lettering three years in basketball and football while also participating in baseball and track. Johnson was playing freshman baseball at UK in the spring of 1930 when he was named a member of the athletics council, which was interviewing applicants for the head basketball coaching job vacated by Johnny Mauer. “I was still a freshman in the 1929-30 season,” he said, “but here I was in the position of sitting in on interviews which eventually would decide who would be coaching me the next year. It was a weird situation, to say the least.” The man chosen to succeed Mauer was Adolph Rupp, a successful young coach at Freeport (III.) High School, who also came to UK as an assisant football coach. Johnson had met Rupp, naturally, during the interview process. He met him again when Rupp returned to the campus in May, and had several conversations with him during football practices. Johnson had the honor of scoring the first points for a Rupp-coached UK team. After Georgetown captain Harry Lancaster scored the first two points of UK’S home opener, Yates tipped the jump-ball to Spicer, who hit Johnson sneaking down the back side for a crip. Those were the only points Johnson scored in the game. UK won 67-19. Ellis was a starting guard on Rupp’s first team, which finished with a 15-3 record. He was more of a playmaker and defender than a scorer, he consistently earned high praise for his intelligent, heady play. Ellis scored a career high 14 points against Chattanooga during his junior season. In his final season, he averaged 3.8 points for the 21-3 Cats, helping them win their first SEC Tournament. He was very popular with the fans, who chided Rupp anytime he removed Johnson from the game. He played exceptionally well in the SEC Tournament, earning a spot on the all-tourney team. Despite his low scoring numbers, his defense and playmaking skills were good enough to land him on the 1933 All-America team.
Johnson was a star athlete for Ashland-Blazer High School in football, basketball, baseball, and track and field. He led Ashland to four straight trips to the basketball state tournament from 1926-29, highlighted by a state title in 1928.
After UK, Ellis began his coaching career at Williamson, W.Va., High School. In his year there, his team had a 28-2 record. He went on to spend a year as an assistant at Ashland, then went to Morehead. At Morehead, Mr. Johnson coached basketball, football, baseball and track and was director of physical education between 1936 and 1953. But he stood out in basketball, coaching nine All-Americans. He still is Morehead’s all-time winningest coach in football, with a 54-44-10 mark, and in basketball, where his teams went 176-158. Morehead named its basketball arena after Mr. Johnson, and the winner of the Morehead-Marshall basketball game each year receives the Ellis Johnson Trophy. Ellis’ career at Morehead was interrupted during World War II by a hitch in the Navy as a lieutenant. He played baseball and football during his Navy stint. A knee injury stopped him from playing football, and he was named coach of the Iowa Preflight station baseball team. Ellis retired from coaching in 1953 and went into the insurance business. He came out of coaching retirement to head the Marshall team in 1963 and retired from coaching again in 1969. Later, he was involved in cable television promotion in Huntington. Ellis was a charter member of the Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame.
“Ellis Johnson was one of the best, if not the best, all-round athlete I ever coached,” Rupp once said. “If he hadn’t broken a collarbone in the minors, I feel he would have been a fine Major League baseball player.”
“It was quite an accomplishment for him to make All-American for me while earning letters in three other sports here at the university. We have remained friends all these years.”
Ellis T. Johnson was inducted into the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame in 2020. In addition to being named to the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame, Johnson has been inducted into the Morehead State Hall of Fame along with the Ohio Valley Conference Hall of Fame and was the first inductee into the Ashland (Ky.) Hall of Fame.
Morehead State’s basketball arena is named after him.