Perfect fit: Virginia introduces new football coach Tony Elliott
New head football coach day is a big day everywhere. The new guy, in Virginia’s case, Tony Elliott, recently of Clemson, hasn’t lost to Virginia Tech yet, hasn’t made any donors upset yet.
Monday was an impossibly sunny mid-December day on Grounds, so unseasonably nice weather-wise that the University decided to welcome Elliott as the new head football coach outdoors on the synthetic turf practice field outside the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility, a six-iron away from where ground will soon be broken on a new $65 million football operations center.
Checkbook alums were on hand, smiles affixed.
Football alums – Chris Long, Chris Slade, Shawn Moore – mingled with student-athletes from the current roster.
The era of good feeling came at the end of an awkward couple of weeks at UVA leading up to the moment in the sun.
Nobody wanted Bronco Mendenhall to go, but after the 2021 regular season ended with a thud – a four-game losing streak punctuated by a 29-24 mistake-filled home loss to state rival Virginia Tech – the writing was on the wall.
In fact, I had written, before leaving Scott Stadium that evening, that the loss to Tech was “effectively the end of the Mendenhall era as we’ve known it, and the beginning of the countdown to who gets to be the next guy to try to reclaim the glory, such as it was, of the 1980s and 1990s.”
I assumed, writing those words, that we’d see Virginia Football slog through another season or two at or around .500, watch Athletics Director Carla Williams struggle to get donors on board for the ops-center upgrade that both she and Mendenhall had been saying for years was a necessity to get the program moving forward, as the product on the field floundered as it has dating back to the beginning of the end of the Welsh glory days in the late 1990s.
The idea that Mendenhall would wake up the next morning thinking that the time was now, and that he’d make that official the following Thursday, wasn’t on anybody’s radar.
A brief spasm of focus from a tiny, but vocal, minority pushing alum Anthony Poindexter as a shoo-in to be the next head coach fired up social media and the message boards, but from all accounts, Williams focused quickly on Elliott, the offensive play-caller at Clemson the past seven years, six of which saw the Tigers compete in the College Football Playoff, with four CFP title-game appearances and two national titles.
Elliott, 42, is almost too perfect a fit for the University of Virginia – a former Academic All-ACC student-athlete at Clemson with a degree in industrial engineering, and a backstory that seems destined for a made-for-TV movie.
His wife, Tamika, is a nurse practitioner with a PhD in nursing who has taught at USC Upstate for the past 10 years.
The Elliotts have two sons, A.J. and Ace.
That’s the warm and fuzzy part of the story. There’s plenty of hardscrabble.
Tony Elliott was homeless for a time as a child, then lost his mother, Patricia, in a car accident when the family, including his younger sister, Brandi, were on the way to church.
Elliott became a top student and solid football player, but not quite solid enough to get a scholarship offer, so he walked on at Clemson, eventually earned a scholarship, then was voted a team captain.
After his playing career was over, Elliott didn’t go into coaching right away, instead putting his engineering degree to work with a job at a Michelin plant.
Tamika noticed that Tony seemed to be going through the motions, and encouraged him to pursue something more meaningful to him, so he gave football another stab, taking an assistant coaching position at South Carolina State, then moving on to Furman, before Dabo Swinney, his position coach for his final season at Clemson, added him to the staff at the alma mater, in 2011.
Tony Elliott isn’t football blue blood.
He didn’t get into school because he was good at football.
He’s not a coach because his daddy was.
He just so happens to be really good at x’s and o’s, among the many things he’s good at.
‘So, who is Tony Elliott?’
Elliott introduced himself by asking that question.
His answer: “I’m a man who was once a lost child that overcame tragedy and difficult circumstances to learn that greatness and excellence is for everybody, because greatness and excellence is a decision.
“I’m extremely passionate about developing young men through the transferrable life skills that football provides. I’m passionate about winning, and winning the right way. Never did I imagine that I would sit here before you today, but the journey was worth it, and I appreciate every day that was invested along the way.”
Elliott didn’t talk much x’s and o’s at the presser. He’s going to take his time hiring a staff, he said, giving himself the opportunity to learn a bit about the current staff, to see if he wants to retain anybody from the Mendenhall regime.
He has a defined approach for how he likes to run an offense – a two-back, no-huddle spread – but he’s smart enough to know to adapt to the roster.
Mendenhall recruited to a 3-3-5 defensive alignment; Elliott wouldn’t commit to a 3-4 or 4-3 front.
“I want to score, and I want to stop people,” he answered a question trying to pin him down on specifics, to laughter.
His mind on Day 2 – Day 1, Sunday, was highlighted by a meeting with the current roster – was more on the big picture.
“My vision for the UVA football program is to become the model in college football, the model program in college football,” Elliott said. “My goal is to contribute to changing the narrative in college football and demonstrate that you can win at the highest level, and you can do so while achieving excellence in education, leadership and service.
“To bring the vision to life, it’s going to take a tremendous amount of work and a ton of commitment. I certainly know that I cannot do it by myself. It’s going to take a unified effort from the team, from the coaches, the support staff, the administration, the faculty, the student body, the alumni, the donors, the supporters and the fans in order to build something special.”
Mendenhall led Virginia to its first ACC Coastal Division championship just two years ago, with a 9-3 regular season that bought the program a ticket to play Clemson in the 2019 ACC Championship Game and then an Orange Bowl berth.
Clemson dominated the ACC title game, winning 62-17, on its way to a loss in the CFP championship game to LSU.
Winning is so ingrained in the culture at Clemson that this season’s 9-3 regular-season finish for the Tigers was a down year.
But it wasn’t always that way. Elliott played on teams that went 7-5 in 2001 and 7-6 in 2002, his sophomore and junior years, and when he was hired by Swinney in 2011, the program was coming off a 6-7 season a year earlier that had some, including Swinney, thinking that he might be fired.
“There’s a lot of similarities, in my opinion,” Elliott said. “When you look at the state of the program when Coach Swinney took over, everybody sees Clemson now, but I started in 2011, and they were transitioning into a new facility, hadn’t won 10 games in 20 years, so there’s a lot of similarities between the two.”
“Building a championship culture,” Elliott said, “starts with making sure that you have alignment and a vision, that you clearly state the vision, and you are particular in the people that you bring in and make sure that they align with the vision, and then you stay grounded to the principles that you set in place for the players and the staff, and you go to work every single day, and you keep an inside-out mentality.
“It’s one day at a time, and eventually that will bring your championship culture to life.”
Win, yes, but win the right way.
On this, Elliott, Williams and UVA President Jim Ryan are in alignment.
“What I loved most about UVA Athletics and appreciate even more now that I’m president is the strong desire to win, but to win in the right way, and that means acting with integrity always,” Ryan said. “It means taking seriously that student-athletes are both; they’re students and they’re athletes. We have a responsibility to help them succeed on the field or the court and in the classroom.
“It takes seriously the idea that we have an incredible opportunity to help our student-athletes develop into the very best students and athletes that they can be. … That is to say, we have an opportunity to use the vehicle of athletics to prepare our student-athletes to be outstanding citizens and leaders,” Ryan said.
“The reason I believe Tony is a perfect fit for UVA is because of his values, because of his track record, and because of his life experience. His life story is one of resilience and of overcoming obstacles. It’s a life guided by faith and by a sense of purpose. It’s a life story of success, and it’s a life story that is a powerful testament to the ability of education to transform lives,” Ryan said.
“Coach talks about alignment, and I think that’s so important,” Williams said. “We’re aligned together. We’re aligned with President Ryan. You have to have that in order to do something special, and that’s our intent. Our intent is to do something special.
“We are very similar in that we come from humble beginnings, and we’re very appreciative of everything, every opportunity, access to higher education through sports, very, very similar,” Williams said. “We also believe that scholar athletes can compete for championships, that our football student-athletes could and should compete for championships.
“We don’t have to compromise one for the other,” Williams said. “That’s important to Coach Elliott, and that’s really important to me. A lot of the same things that drew him to Virginia also drew me to Virginia. I’m looking forward to just getting to work and getting started.”
“I understand that there’s going to be a Virginia fit,” Elliott said. “There’s going to be a profile of what we’re looking for, and we’re going to have to go work to recruit the best and the brightest, but our attraction and our draw and ourselves is we’re going to build champion men all the way around. We’re going to use football, we’re going to use social development, we’re going to use academic development, and then we’re going to build on a foundation of faith so that they can grow spiritually, as well.”
Story by Chris Graham