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Tony Elliott lays down the law: ‘This is a new direction going forward’

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Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

Is UVA football coach Tony Elliott throwing shade at his predecessor, Bronco Mendenhall, with the focus in his pressers about the lack of discipline and intensity with his team?

Possible, though it’s probably more to the point that, he needs to let his guys know that there’s a new sheriff in town, and the way things were done before isn’t the way they’re going to be done going forward.

“They’ve had success doing it their way. I acknowledge that, I respect that. But I also have had success coming from where I’m coming from, the way I was trained, what it took from a cultural standpoint to be successful there,” Elliott told reporters on Tuesday, addressing the two-game Cavaliers’ losing streak, and his blowups on the sideline on Saturday night, which he said were the result of “frustration” at multiple penalties and mistakes in Virginia’s 38-17 loss at Duke.

“It’s like teaching an old dog new tricks,” Elliott said. “They are going to resist at times because they’ve had success doing it one way. But this is a new regime, this is a new direction going forward.”

You might get the sense, paying attention to the rest of what he said in the presser, that he wasn’t just talking about schemes when he mentioned how the players he inherited from Mendenhall “had success doing it their way.”

Elliott detailed later in the presser that he decided to cut out fighting during practice, which he said a lot of coaches will allow, saying it’s a part of the game, but to Elliott, the better approach is to “live above reproach.”

“Control that. Let’s focus your energy that you’re wasting there to when the ball is spotted, go appropriately, and handle your business within the rules of the game,” Elliott said. “It doesn’t matter what the other team is doing because, again, a lot of that is intentional to distract you, to get you out of your game. For some guys, man, it’s working. When that happens it hurts the team, right? It hurts the team.”

Elliott said he sees too many instances of his players appearing to be “more concerned with talking trash between the plays and getting up in each other’s face” than what’s going on when the ball is in play.

“I’m focused on the right targeting on the inside zone so we can be successful during the play, and not winning the trash-talking contest after the play,” Elliott said. “Being disciplined, if a guy pushes you after the whistle, trust that the referee is going to make the call. You don’t turn around and push the guy in the face. Those were the kind of things that had me upset in the game, because we’re trying to win a football game. Next thing I know, I’m having to coach things that we’ve already stopped in practice, that we don’t do in practice, then they’re showing up in the game.”

Here’s where we get to the interesting dichotomy of the Mendenhall era. Mendenhall, famously, perhaps infamously, required players to earn their numbers by hitting rigid strength and conditioning benchmarks under his “earned, not given” mantra; and yet between the lines, his teams, dating back to his days at BYU, were known to be, well, let’s be gentle and say “aggressive,” playing hard through the last tick of sound of the whistle.

Mendenhall also promoted his players playing with a heightened level of enthusiasm that extended to the sidelines, the “Fourth Side,” as he called it, that you could see might end up manifesting itself in the form of the trash-talking that Elliott sees and doesn’t like.

“I get it. They’ve done things one way,” Elliott said. “Some guys are going to try to push the envelope, they’re young people, I get that, I understand it. Those are things from a culture standpoint I don’t believe are going to help us win, right? My job as the head coach is to make sure that I correct those things.”

One other notable thing that Elliott has seen and doesn’t like: he saw some of his players walking onto the field at Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday night.

“That doesn’t show me the appreciation for your opportunity. That showed me a little bit of entitlement, which I didn’t like to see,” Elliott said. “The result is you missed a play that you need to make, right, because your intensity is not where it needs to be. That could be the one play in the game that determines the game. Or you lose your composure, and you have a penalty. We had six penalties, they were all 15-yard penalties, these are big penalties that change the complexion of the game.

“I can take the approach, ‘Hey, you have a good team’, but then I’m starting over year after year and I don’t establish the foundation of the program,” Elliott said. “For me, the foundation of the program is, one, having appreciation for your opportunity to play. When you take the field, right, for pregame warmups, you take the field with enthusiasm, with excitement, with a sense of urgency and appreciation to play. You don’t walk onto the field, right?

“We had some guys that made it about themselves. They thought it was OK to walk on the field for pregame warmups. From my culture, the culture we’re trying to establish, it tells me you don’t have the right sense of urgency. You aren’t going to have the details in crunch time.

“That’s what we’re seeing on both sides of the ball. It’s a handful of plays where guys use the wrong technique or wrong fundamentals, they got the wrong targeting.

“Again, maybe they’re not used to that, but I know fully how you run onto the field sends a message. I didn’t like the message that the team sent when they came onto the field for pregame warmups,” Elliott said.

These might seem like trifling things – running onto the field for warmups to show enthusiasms, then toning down the enthusiasm between plays to maintain focus.

But to Elliott, it’s all about establishing – or rather, re-establishing – culture.

“Fellas, this is who I am, and this is why I do it, is because I have a vision of what your future could possibly look like that maybe you can’t see yet, but I only get a short window in your life to be a part of it,” Elliott said. “I don’t want anything from you but your best. That’s all I’m asking for. That’s the culture that I’m trying to establish here. Again, it’s about the team. It’s about collective accountability. It’s not about individuals. It’s about appreciation.”

Chris Graham

I write books, two on UVA basketball, one on pro wrestling, one on politics, which is getting to be like pro wrestling more and more each day. I've finished three marathons, but I'm over that. Oh, and I'm a progressive who voted for Biden, but I'm over that, too. (We need somebody else in 2024!) Want to reach me? Try [email protected]