How Tony Elliott’s lengthy, winding path led him to Virginia soccer

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When Virginia coach Tony Elliott walked into ACC media day final month, his sneakers commanded fast consideration.

On one facet of his customized Nikes, Elliott has the names of his spouse, Tamika, and their kids, A.J. and Ace. On the opposite facet, he has a Clemson jersey, the place he performed from 1999 to 2003. His left shoe has the date he was employed as head coach of the Cavaliers, Dec. 10, 2021, written contained in the Nike swoosh — a day he had been ready for since beginning his teaching profession in 2006.

Subsequent to the swoosh, there’s a phrase written in orange capital letters, save for the ultimate phrase, written in blue: “A person will probably be outlined by the situation of his coronary heart.”

The sneakers, and significantly that phrase, encapsulate Elliott’s path to Charlottesville: That of a biracial man who grew up in a Black family, graduating faculty with an engineering diploma, switching paths to teaching, turning into the best paid offensive coordinator within the nation and now one among 14 Black FBS head coaches.

The sneakers are a car for expression, permitting him to point out who he’s and what he represents. He calls them an “vital a part of Black tradition,” whereas concurrently eager to be seen as greater than what some see first.

“I do know that I’m a minority,” Elliott mentioned. “I simply don’t need it to be solely about that.”

It’s simple to say that Elliott is the correct coach on the proper time for Virginia — a Black coach employed by Carla Williams, a Black lady and athletic director, at a college that has taken steps to handle its personal historical past with race in recent times. However what he represents takes on a deeper which means than soccer coach.

That’s very true for gamers similar to linebacker Nick Jackson, part of the “Groundskeepers,” a gaggle the Virginia soccer workforce fashioned in 2020 to work towards objectives of their collective struggle for racial and social change.

“It simply exhibits how far we have come, actually,” Jackson mentioned. “We all know the historical past of UVa, with slavery and all of the stuff that got here to make UVa occur. However we are able to additionally simply have a good time what’s occurring now.”

Elliott believes issues occur for a cause. Whereas outdoors observers could have puzzled why it took him so lengthy to land a head-coaching job when he was among the many hottest assistants in faculty soccer, Elliott is steadfast in his resolve that endurance led him to Virginia on this specific second in time.

IN 2011, ELLIOTT returned to his alma mater, Clemson, as working backs coach beneath Dabo Swinney. The transfer got here 5 years after leaving his job as an engineer at Michelin and his first assistant teaching jobs at South Carolina State and Furman. Elliott was in search of better goal.

“I actually challenged him on that,” Swinney mentioned of the profession change. “As a result of he was making some huge cash. He informed me he felt like he wasn’t impacting lives. To me, that is what teaching must be about.”

Clemson was a return residence, however Elliott additionally discovered a kindred spirit in Swinney.

“He had by no means coached working backs a day in his life,” Swinney mentioned. “I did not rent him as a result of he is an excellent working backs coach, I employed him due to who he’s, and people traits that he has, his attributes and his aptitude and his willingness to place within the work and present up. We align in how we predict.”

In late 2014, Swinney promoted Elliott to co-offensive coordinator and first playcaller. On the time, Elliott was one among seven Black offensive coordinators within the Energy 5. That very same yr, Elliott attended the NCAA Champion Discussion board, a chance for minority assistants to fulfill athletic administrators and different directors, make connections, run via mock interviews and get a greater understanding of what decision-makers are in search of when hiring head coaches.

Elliott realized two issues rapidly: He was unsure he needed to be a head coach, and even when he did, he was nowhere close to prepared.

“I wasn’t making an attempt to plan my life as a result of I discovered via my expertise with engineering that the plans of man are many, however finally the Lord orders your steps,” Elliott mentioned. “If I used to be going to be one of many highest-paid or most-coveted offensive coordinators and by no means grow to be a head coach, then I used to be tremendous with that. If it was meant for me to grow to be a head coach, then I used to be content material with that.”

Elliott emerged as one of many prime offensive coordinators within the nation after serving to the Tigers win two nationwide championships, thanks largely to his growing two future first-round NFL draft picks at quarterback — Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence.

Due to his prominence at Clemson, Elliott’s title usually appeared on lists projecting teaching hires. However in actuality, Elliott had solely two severe inquiries through the previous 5 seasons. A few of that may be a results of his insistence to solely interview for open jobs after teaching within the ACC championship recreation, by which level many colleges had made hires.

However Elliott additionally stood agency that he was not going to take a job simply to take a job. It is the fact going through minorities: Black head coaches typically solely have one shot to get it proper. Of the 41 Black head coaches who’ve been employed on the Energy 5 degree since 1981, solely eight have gotten one other Energy 5 head teaching alternative. That features Mike London, the primary Black head coach at Virginia from 2010 to 2015. Although London has gotten one other head teaching alternative, it’s on the FCS degree at William & Mary.

“We do not simply want extra; we want guys to be in positions to achieve success,” Elliott mentioned. “For me, the endurance was about getting myself right into a state of affairs the place I had what I felt was a authentic shot to achieve success. As a result of it did not matter if I bought a job, what is going on to matter is how effectively I do with the job.”

“I at all times informed him, ‘It isn’t about being a younger head coach, it is about being an outdated head coach,'” Swinney mentioned. “He may afford to be affected person. He was making extra money as a coordinator than a variety of head coaches, in order that afforded him the posh of being selective. However he is been getting ready for the chance for a very long time.”

When the telephone name got here from Virginia, Elliott felt an on the spot reference to Williams, one among three Black girls athletic administrators in Energy 5. He had a familiarity with the area, convention and recruiting space. However Virginia additionally represented a lot of what he needed in a program — sturdy educational profile, the power to construct a program the way in which he needed and an opportunity to calm down and lift his household.

After 11 seasons at Clemson, Elliott’s endurance was rewarded.

“He had been on everyone’s radar so it is not like he was ready to be found,” Williams mentioned. “However as soon as I talked to him, it was apparent what we must be doing right here.”

Williams mentioned she didn’t got down to rent a Black head coach when she began the interview course of. However she additionally knew that “solely a handful” of individuals may coach at Virginia.

“The aim is to compete for nationwide championships with out compromising any of the tutorial values of UVa,” Williams mentioned. “The scholar-athletes that come right here select a tougher route, and our coaches perceive that, and so they need to recruit to that. So you have to be completely dedicated to those younger folks.

“After speaking to Tony, it simply turned clear that he was the correct individual.”

ELLIOTT COMES TO CHARLOTTESVILLE at a time when each the college administration and a subset of the soccer workforce have grow to be extra vocal about acknowledging the previous and pushing for change. Among the many greatest: In 2020, the college accomplished the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers to share the untold historical past of the enslaved individuals who constructed, labored and lived on the College of Virginia.

There’s additionally a self-guided tour referred to as “Enslaved African Individuals on the College of Virginia” on its Strolling Tour of Grounds app, a part of an initiative college president Jim Ryan applied “so as to add context to the story of UVa’s previous by emphasizing the contributions to College life made by enslaved folks,” in keeping with a college information story.

The homicide of George Floyd in the summertime of 2020 sparked renewed conversations among the many soccer workforce about methods gamers may arise and be heard on racial and social justice issues. Twelve gamers, led by affiliate head coach-receivers coach Marques Hagans, fashioned “The Groundskeepers,” and so they began a “Take Again Our Grounds Stroll” to assist enhance consciousness in regards to the college’s previous. The stroll begins at Heather Heyer Approach in downtown Charlottesville, named for the lady killed through the “Unite the Proper” protest in 2017, and features a cease on the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers.

On a heat April afternoon, Jackson, together with huge receiver Lavel Davis Jr. and defensive again Chayce Chalmers collect at Heather Heyer Solution to start the stroll that ultimately ends on the Rotunda — the signature architectural accomplishment designed by college founder Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the USA, himself a slave proprietor.

Alongside the way in which, the gamers clarify the historical past of the college and the town itself — beginning with the truth that enslaved folks constructed the campus. In addition they clarify why it’s particularly significant for them to have a Black head coach because the face of Virginia soccer.

“It feels actually good having anyone I can relate to and perceive a few of the gamers’ circumstances who won’t come from privilege or come from the standard conditions,” mentioned Davis, who grew up an hour from the place Elliott went to highschool in South Carolina. “Simply being at [Virginia], there’s not a variety of Black folks right here, so it is good having somebody you possibly can hook up with and discuss to.”

Although the group was fashioned earlier than Elliott turned head coach, its significance just isn’t misplaced on him. Elliott recalled taking part in a player-organized march at Clemson after Floyd was murdered.

“My aunt who raised me was a college principal and she or he attended South Carolina State and her technology needed to march in hopes of my technology by no means having to march, and I am at Clemson College, the place I graduated with an engineering diploma with honors, and I am having to march,” Elliott mentioned. “After going via and experiencing that, you are discouraged. There’s a bit little bit of anger. However after you flush all these feelings, then your motivation comes again.”

In early August, Elliott had the chance to do the stroll for the primary time and located a brand new degree of appreciation for not solely the gamers who stay dedicated to the Groundskeepers, however for the college taking steps to handle its previous.

“Doing the stroll, it turns into extra actual for you,” Elliott mentioned. “I’ve at all times challenged my gamers to have a way of respect and pleasure in the truth that folks gave their life for them to have a chance to be the place they’re. So it places it really in context as a result of now it is not simply one thing that you simply’re saying. You may see it, really feel it, contact it.”

And the work stays.

“I prefer to imagine issues are intentional,” mentioned Hagans, who performed at Virginia and leads the Groundskeepers. “We will not change the previous, however make a greater future. However even the very fact we now have to say it is not a coach being employed, it is a Black coach, that lets society perceive the place we nonetheless are. There’s at all times the affiliation that it must be recognized, that it is not the norm, and I believe that’s the hardest half for particularly younger, aspiring African American coaches, as a result of the chance to get to that time is so few and much between.

“Irrespective of the place you might be, as a coach, you search for any Black head coach that will get the chance, as a result of his success solely offers alternatives for extra folks to return. It is unfair. I do not know if it will ever change. However the one factor that I’m sure of is that I’ve a chance to assist help Coach Elliott, and my goal is to assist him grow to be the perfect head coach potential. So hopefully sooner or later, there will probably be much less taking a look at a Black head coach and extra taking a look at the perfect coach obtainable, and if he occurs to be Black, so be it. That is the day I am hoping for.”

Elliott needs to be clear he understands the accountability he has, however he needs the main target to be much less on being a minority coach and extra on what he needs to perform on the college — together with profitable championships whereas graduating all his gamers.

“Rising up, you’d at all times hear feedback: ‘You are good for a Black man,’ or ‘You are very articulate for a Black man,'” Elliott mentioned. “These are challenges that it’s important to overcome however but they encourage you simply to be revered as a man. Can I simply be a sensible man? Can I be an articulate man? I simply need to be a man. As a result of on the finish of the day, my pores and skin shade should not matter. The situation of my coronary heart actually must be what defines me as a person.”

He wears his Nike sneakers as he says this, the phrase unimaginable to overlook. The ink on these sneakers is as everlasting because the values he believes in and the work he has left to do.

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