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Ellenberger, 'Coach Norm' made a mark in Watersmeet


WATERSMEET — Norm Ellenberger was known nationally as a showman on the sidelines in his early college basketball coaching days.

In Watersmeet, he was simply Coach Norm.

Ellenberger, who died in his sleep over the weekend at the age of 83, was calmer on the sidelines while coaching the Watersmeet girls basketball team the last four seasons. But the charismatic Ellenberger still had the biggest personality in the room, his passion for and knowledge of basketball remained unmatched and his concern for his players was obvious.

What made a good coach made him a good friend to many in Watersmeet.

"He just had this charisma about him," said Kathleen McGrath, former Watersmeet girls coach and a good friend of his. "He could be your friend, he could be your mentor and he could tell you what you're doing wrong. We all are good coaches, but Norm had this special gift of his voice and how he treats people and how he makes them feel more special than anybody else I've ever come across."

“It was probably the best thing playing for Norm because he was such a good guy and he cared about you on and off the court,” said Lauren Ryskey, who graduated from Watersmeet in 2014.

 “He connected with the town really well, which I think everyone liked,” said Frannie Zelinski, who played for Ellenberger the past four years in Watersmeet. “They came to the basketball games because they liked watching him coach. He brought back the spirit in basketball when he started coaching.

“He enjoyed it, which made other people enjoy it.”

“He will be sorely missed by the Nimrod Nation,” said Watersmeet principal George Peterson III, whose boys teams also received help from Ellenberger over the years. “We can’t thank the good Lord enough that we had Norm.”

George and his wife LeeAnn loved Norm, George said.

“He was like an uncle to us,” he said. “It was sad after last season because we knew it was over because his health was an issue. We both had tears in our eyes.”

McGrath shed a few tears talking about him Wednesday night; she and her son, Michael, were close to him.

"All those girls loved him," she said. "They all played their hearts out for him. You couldn't ask for anyone better to help out the Nimrods. You'll never get anyone like him again.

"He and I were pals. I looked forward to having my Norm fix. He would come up and see me before his practice, he would talk about Michael, about fishing or about good wine. What a dear friend."

Peterson talked to him within the last week in Watersmeet and he’s glad he had the opportunity. Ellenberger moved to the Lakeland area with his girlfriend of eight years, Lori Sharrow, after heart surgery a year ago. Still, he planned on helping a basketball team there this year.

“He sounded like his same old self,” Peterson said. “He wasn’t complaining about health issues.”

Basketball, even living, in Watersmeet was a little more fun with Norm around. People looked forward to reading about Watersmeet’s games in the Daily Globe the next day, mostly to see what Norm had to say, Peterson said.

For example, a November game didn’t begin so well for the Nimrods: “We started the game shooting ourselves in the foot. Even though it’s deer season, it doesn’t help to play basketball that way,” he quipped.

“Anytime, anyplace, he was willing to drop a one-liner on you,” Peterson said. “He could have been on Jay Leno or Johnny Carson.”

Ellenberger found fame as head coach at New Mexico in the 1970s, when he led the team to two Western Athletic Conference titles and two appearances in the NCAA tournament. He was nicknamed Stormin’ Norman for his foot stomping antics on the sideline. A scandal ended his tenure there.

In 1986, Ellenberger was hired as lead assistant for the late Don Haskins at UTEP; he was an assistant there for three years and a head coach for one. He was an assistant for Bobby Knight at Indiana from 1990 to 2000. He then went to the NBA’s Chicago Bulls with head coach Tim Floyd. In 2012, he was an assistant for John Whisenant for the WNBA’s New York Liberty.

“He loved basketball,” Peterson said. “He always talked about Haskins and Bobby Knight and what it meant to be around those guys.”

McGrath said despite all of that, he was more down to earth than you could imagine.

"All those big basketball coaches, Bobby Knight, they must have just loved to have him around," McGrath said. "How could you not?"

While in Chicago, Ellenberger found out a cabin on Crooked Lake near Watersmeet was for sale. After visiting, he was hooked. He bought the cabin and resigned from the Bulls.

“I fell in love with the country just driving through it, the lakes and the people,” Ellenberger told the Daily Globe in 2011. “I love the people.”

Always coaching

He coached anywhere he was needed, Lakeland, Northland Pines, the Conserve School in Land O’ Lakes, Wis., where Peterson got to know him. Wisconsin’s basketball playoffs started a week earlier than in Michigan then. Ellenberger went to help Peterson, Watersmeet’s boys basketball coach, after his team was eliminated.

“He liked to break down the games, break down the film, especially when we were having those good runs,” Peterson said.

Watersmeet won its only regional boys championship in 2005. The regional final win took place on a Saturday afternoon and the team had to leave for Sault Ste. Marie on Monday. They had a Sunday morning practice, just a walk through. Ellenberger was there helping out and he didn’t see the effort he wanted.

“He yelled at me and he yelled at the players, ‘Let’s go home,’” Peterson said.

Peterson still laughs about it.

“The only championship we have, as far as a regional, and you want me to cancel practice, at 10:30 in the morning, because they weren’t working hard enough,” Peterson said.

But Ellenberger didn’t know any other way.

“The biggest thing I thought he got across to me and the players was never cheat the game,” Peterson said. “Give it your very best effort always.”

Memorable moments, games here

When the Watersmeet girls position opened in 2011, Peterson asked him to come coach.

The Nimrods didn’t have a lot of players. Once playoff time came, they were also up against Crystal Falls Forest Park and the Upper Peninsula’s all-time scoring leader, Lexi Gussert.

It didn’t bother him.

Watersmeet won the Porcupine Mountain Conference title in 2011-12, his first season. Then in the first postseason district game, Ellenberger’s Nimrods had heavily-favored Forest Park down by five points with 48.6 seconds to go.

It would have been the upset of the century, Peterson said. But Gussert, now at Michigan State, scored six straight points herself down the stretch to cap the comeback and break Watersmeet’s hearts. Forest Park went down state that year, but it almost lost the very first game of the playoffs.

Forest Park actually led by nine points at the half, 18-9.

“He puts his arm around me, he says, Jeff, you’re whooping my (butt), can you let up on me a little?” former Forest Park coach Jeff Syrjanen said. “In the second half, he ran that just beautiful weave and took us right out of our game. He’d bury one 3 after another and next I think I knew we were in a dogfight. He told me after, when we came back, ‘I saw that look in that girl’s eye and I saw that look before. I knew we wouldn’t win that game when Lexi came down for that last shot.’”

Syrjanen was a big fan of Ellenberger.

“In my mind, Norm was one of the greatest coaches and one of the best people I ever dealt with,” he said. “He was a real, real great guy.”

Despite losing another All-U.P. player after that and then his roster falling to as low as five players last season, Watersmeet was still competitive.

“He took those five, six girls and disciplined them to run his offense,” Peterson said.

Ellenberger kept the offense basic and the Nimrods executed it how he wanted them to, often slowing it down effectively when the Nimrods didn’t have a lot of shooters.

“We had plays, but the plays were just common sense on how to play basketball,” Zelinski said. “He taught us the basics and we would just run through that over and over again.”

“He had more faith in our team than we did as players,” she said. “He’s like, ‘We have six people, we’re going to make this work.’”

He preached defense, she said.

“We didn’t have many shooters,” Zelinski said. “Our biggest thing was defense, that’s what we worked on the most. That’s what we got yelled at the most when we lost was defense.”

And he wasn’t afraid to yell.

 “He cared about his teams,” Zelinski said. “He’d make people upset when he’d yell at them and he yelled at you constantly, but after he’d yell at you, he’d say, ‘Why do you take it so hard,’ and he’d just make it a joke.

“He’d say if a coach doesn’t yell at you, that’s when you should be concerned that they don’t care about you.”

A service will be held for Ellenberger on Dec. 5 at Lakeland Union High School in Minocqua. A memorial gathering will start at 11 a.m. with the service at 1 p.m. and a reception to follow.


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