Home To those saying UVA needs to cut bait with Tony Elliott: Why it won’t happen

To those saying UVA needs to cut bait with Tony Elliott: Why it won’t happen

Chris Graham
uva football entrance
Photo: UVA Athletics

If Virginia was in the SEC, the 37-7 loss to Pitt on Saturday that dropped the Cavaliers to 3-7 on the season would put Tony Elliott on notice, first year on the job or not.

Elliott has done almost everything wrong since being hired last December, starting with passing on offering the offensive coordinator job to Jason Beck, failing to re-recruit four offensive linemen who started leaving two weeks after he took the job, then striking out on the transfer portal.

His recruiting for next year’s prep class currently ranks 13th in the 14-team ACC.

His recruits are choosing Virginia over offers from the MAC, Sun Belt and FCS schools.

And when you’re getting kids whose best offers are Group of 5s and the FCS, that’s setting your level of play at the Group of 5 and FCS level, unless you’ve demonstrated an ability to coach ‘em up, to borrow from former Virginia coach Mike London.

Elliott and his staff, frustratingly, to this stage, haven’t demonstrated that ability.

Burn it down

Handed a program that three seasons ago received an Orange Bowl berth, and was coming off a pair of disappointing .500 seasons, Elliott didn’t need to raze the building and start over; he just needed to build on what he’d inherited from Bronco Mendenhall, who it is now widely assumed was pressured out because he wouldn’t cut bait with the defensive staff that he’d brought with him from BYU.

The defensive side of the ball is one thing that Elliott has actually gotten right, plucking John Rudzinski from Air Force, where Rudzinski, year after year, put together nationally-ranked defenses with the limited talent he had at his disposal at a military school.

With the defense set to get better, all Elliott needed to do was keep the record-setting offense humming along, and Year 1, with a weak schedule, could get the Elliott era off to a nice start, maybe 7-5, maybe 8-4, enough to jumpstart recruiting, to give the long-checked-out fan base something to get excited about, and to give him some insulation heading into Year 2.

Next year was always going to be a step back, given the realities roster-wise. QB Brennan Armstrong is a fifth-year player, and though he’d have a COVID redshirt year if he wanted it, it was all but certain that he’d have a good 2022 and head off to the NFL, along with Keytaon Thompson, whose eligibility is thoroughly exhausted this fall, and possibly Dontayvion Wicks, a first-team All-ACC pick last year, who with another solid year could have been a draft pick as well.

With those guys gone, the new ACC schedule making things tougher, the Year 1 8-4 was going to probably head back in the direction of either side of .500 in Year 2, but that would be OK, because Year 3, 2024, gets Virginia Football moved into the new $80 million football ops center, another boost to recruiting and player development, and if Elliott could cobble together a seven-win year there, you could look ahead to bigger and better things in Year 4 and beyond.

The seat is getting warmer

Elliott, by deciding that he needed to do a full rebuild of a program that just needed a tuneup, all in the name of building a culture, has fans on the message boards and social media wondering out loud if the University of Virginia should just move on from him a year in and go in another direction.

This was unthinkable even just a couple of months ago, but I spent most of my day Saturday, beginning with the second of back-to-back pick-sixes on Virginia’s first two plays from scrimmage, talking various people who should and probably do know better that it won’t happen, that the University of Virginia won’t fire a football coach a year in, and detailing the reasons why.

None of what I’ve come up with has to do with what you hear from some folks – hey, it’s Year 1, give him a chance to play some games with his guys, to do things the way he wants to.

To me, the writing has been on the wall for several weeks.

A 3-9 or 4-8 finish here in Year 1 is going to be the prelude for a 3-9 or 2-10 Year 2.

The poorly-ranked recruiting class doesn’t factor in there to me; true freshmen rarely make much of an impact in their first year at the college level, certainly at a school like Virginia, but the fact that Elliott and his staff aren’t doing better with the preps, and struck out as spectacularly as they did on the transfer portal last winter and spring, doesn’t give me any confidence that they’ll be able to rally between now and signing day for the preps, and all the sudden show that they can lure quality guys in off the portal.

Expecting anything different in Year 3 is the classic definition of insanity being doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

So, what do you do if you’re Carla Williams?

I doubt that I’m the only smart person who has looked thoroughly at Virginia Football and thinks this way. I’m hearing from people who would know that big-money donors have been making it clear to AD Carla Williams that if Elliott doesn’t fire offensive coordinator Des Kitchings and special-teams coordinator Keith Gaither, then they’re done, no more big checks from them.

So, it’s looking like Williams will need to have another difficult conversation with Elliott, along the lines of the one that we’ve heard she had with Mendenhall after the 2021 season, about having to make that kind of change.

Maybe she advises Elliott to hire another offensive coordinator; maybe she suggests to him that he take over the play-calling duties on offense, which he was pretty good at in his days at Clemson, where he won two national championships calling plays under Dabo Swinney.

One thing she doesn’t do, though, and this gets to heart of what so many people have been texting and emailing me about today and tonight, no, she doesn’t fire Tony Elliott at the end of Year 1.

The reasons why she doesn’t are myriad.

One being, the University of Virginia just doesn’t do that kind of thing.

UVA isn’t an SEC school, and thank god for that, because we’d be another Vanderbilt (who beat Kentucky today, so maybe we’d not even be another Vanderbilt, because no way Virginia beats a Kentucky this year).

Two, money. Elliott is making $4 million-plus per year. The buyout would be $16 million after a year, and yes, that could be negotiated down, and Elliott would have to look for another job, and UVA has more money than god, but that money is on the academics side.

The athletics department hasn’t been doing well for years, because football hasn’t been doing well for years. The athletics budget would be in the red if not for subsidies from the academics side and from students paying millions in activity fees, and that’s precisely because of the tens of thousands of empty seats on Saturdays each fall.

And if you buy out a coach, you need to be able to then commit even more money to a new coach.

There are plenty of deep pockets in the alumni base, but are we maybe tapped out now that we’ve broken ground on the football ops center?

Three, and this is the biggie, politics. Not Republican vs. Democrat so much; I’m going more basic here, the word politics referring to internal workings.

It’s rare for an AD who hires a football coach that then needs to be fired to survive herself or himself. The only example that immediately comes to mind there is down the road in Blacksburg, where Whit Babcock pushed Frank Beamer to the curb in favor of Justin Fuente, who left the Virginia Tech program a dumpster fire that has the coach he hired to replace Fuente, Brent Pry, off to a 2-8 start in his Year 1.

How Babcock survived the mess that he himself created with his awful hire to be able to replace the guy that burned his department’s signature program to the ground is a mystery to a lot of folks, not just me.

I don’t know that Williams survives even a couple years down the road if UVA decides to move on from Tony Elliott. She certainly doesn’t survive if that call were to be made now.

Any call sooner than 2024 or 2025 would have to come from University of Virginia President Jim Ryan or even higher than him, Ryan’s bosses on the UVA Board of Visitors.

Ryan has his own issues with the Board of Visitors, shall we say, evolving, with appointments made by the new governor, Republican Glenn Youngkin, changing the makeup and philosophical leanings of the body that hired him in 2018.

The BOV, before Youngkin named four new members in June, voted earlier this year to extend Ryan’s contract through 2028, and I’m not trying to say here that I know or have heard anything other than that he’s going to serve out at least the remainder of his current deal, if not even longer into the future.

Just saying, there’s a lot more on the plates of Ryan and the Board of Visitors than the football coach, even looking at the fiscal impact of millions of dollars in lost ticket revenues on not only football, but every other athletics program on Grounds.

Ryan, the BOV, Williams, dealt with football this time last year; they’re not going to look at it again from a we’ve got to do something standpoint until at least this time next year, and even then, the most they’re going to do is put Elliott on notice that his buyout after Year 3 wouldn’t preclude action if there isn’t obvious progress being made.

My crystal ball says …

The most we’re going to get, and I think we will get this, is Elliott, either of his own volition, or at the point of a bayonet from Williams, firing Des Kitchings and probably also Keith Gaither.

I’m hearing support for elevating Marques Hagans to the OC position, which I have to say, personally, I’m a bit reluctant to endorse, just because his wideouts have massively underperformed this season, but the people who are trying to persuade me on Hagans are blaming that on the mess that Kitchings has made of the offense from the top level down.

I still don’t see a path to things getting turned around under Elliott. The recruiting is a mess; the transfer portal is going to be a bloodbath for Virginia this offseason, with a lot more lost to the portal than we’ll see in return.

And while I’d say that I’d have faith in Rudzinski to put together another solid defense in 2023, I’m not sure why he’d stay around; I mean, if I’m his agent, and I’m looking at Elliott and thinking that he may not be long for this job, I’m listening to other schools that look at what Rudzinski was able to do at Air Force and then at Virginia and saying, We need that guy, and I’m seeing if I can land my guy one of those jobs.

But, and this is a big but, if Elliott is able to retain Rudzinski, if he can get the offense righted under a new coordinator, Hagans or whoever else, if he can start convincing recruits, both preps and college transfers, that he can turn UVA into a winner …

That’s a big but and a lot of ifs, actually.

One more if: if I’d won the billion-dollar lottery the other day, I’d have taken the lump sum, and we wouldn’t have to speculate anymore on any of this, because it would already be done.

Since that didn’t happen, we’re going to be stuck where we are for much longer than any of us want to be.

Sorry. I wish, after we all had to sit through that clown show this afternoon, that I had better news than that, but I don’t.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].