When Virginia coach Tony Elliott walked into ACC media day final month, his sneakers commanded fast consideration.
On one facet of his personalised Nikes, Elliott has the names of his spouse, Tamika, and their youngsters, 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 might 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 very best paid offensive coordinator within the nation and now considered one of 14 Black FBS head coaches.
The sneakers are a car for expression, permitting him to indicate who he’s and what he represents. He calls them an “necessary a part of Black tradition,” whereas concurrently desirous to be considered as greater than what some see first.
“I do know that I’m a minority,” Elliott mentioned. “I simply don’t desire it to be solely about that.”
It’s simple to say that Elliott is the appropriate 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 equivalent to linebacker Nick Jackson, part of the “Groundskeepers,” a bunch the Virginia soccer crew shaped in 2020 to work towards objectives of their collective struggle for racial and social change.
“It simply exhibits how far we have come, truthfully,” 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 will additionally simply rejoice what’s occurring now.”
Elliott believes issues occur for a purpose. Whereas outdoors observers might 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 persistence led him to Virginia on this explicit 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 searching for higher function.
“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 house, 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 considered one of seven Black offensive coordinators within the Energy 5. That very same 12 months, Elliott attended the NCAA Champion Discussion board, a possibility for minority assistants to satisfy athletic administrators and different directors, make connections, run by means of mock interviews and get a greater understanding of what decision-makers are searching for when hiring head coaches.
Elliott realized two issues shortly: He was undecided he wished to be a head coach, and even when he did, he was nowhere close to prepared.
“I wasn’t attempting to plan my life as a result of I realized by means of my expertise with engineering that the plans of man are many, however in the end 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 develop into a head coach, then I used to be advantageous with that. If it was meant for me to develop into a head coach, then I used to be content material with that.”
Elliott emerged as one of many high 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 typically appeared on lists projecting teaching hires. However in actuality, Elliott had solely two severe inquiries in the course of 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 sport, 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 dealing with 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 stage 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 stage at William & Mary.
“We do not simply want extra; we want guys to be in positions to achieve success,” Elliott mentioned. “For me, the persistence was about getting myself right into a scenario the place I had what I felt was a official shot to achieve success. As a result of it did not matter if I received a job, what is going on to matter is how nicely I do with the job.”
“I all the time informed him, ‘It isn’t about being a younger head coach, it is about being an previous head coach,'” Swinney mentioned. “He may afford to be affected person. He was making more cash as a coordinator than a variety of head coaches, in order that afforded him the luxurious of being selective. However he is been making ready for the chance for a very long time.”
When the cellphone name got here from Virginia, Elliott felt an immediate reference to Williams, considered one of 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 wished in a program — sturdy tutorial profile, the power to construct a program the way in which he wished and an opportunity to calm down and lift his household.
After 11 seasons at Clemson, Elliott’s persistence was rewarded.
“He had been on all people’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 objective 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, they usually need to recruit to that. So you have to be completely dedicated to those younger folks.
“After speaking to Tony, it simply grew to become clear that he was the appropriate individual.”
ELLIOTT COMES TO CHARLOTTESVILLE at a time when each the college administration and a subset of the soccer crew have develop into 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 may be additionally a self-guided tour known as “Enslaved African People on the College of Virginia” on its Strolling Tour of Grounds app, a part of an initiative faculty president Jim Ryan carried out “so as to add context to the story of UVa’s previous by emphasizing the contributions to College life made by enslaved folks,” in line with a college information story.
The homicide of George Floyd in the summertime of 2020 sparked renewed conversations among the many soccer crew about methods gamers may rise up and be heard on racial and social justice issues. Twelve gamers, led by affiliate head coach-receivers coach Marques Hagans, shaped “The Groundskeepers,” they usually began a “Take Again Our Grounds Stroll” to assist enhance consciousness concerning the college’s previous. The stroll begins at Heather Heyer Method in downtown Charlottesville, named for the girl killed in the course of 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 Approach to start the stroll that finally ends on the Rotunda — the signature architectural accomplishment designed by college founder Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the US, himself a slave proprietor.
Alongside the way in which, the gamers clarify the historical past of the college and 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 among 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 may hook up with and speak to.”
Although the group was shaped earlier than Elliott grew to become 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 faculty principal and he or she attended South Carolina State and her era needed to march in hopes of my era 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 by means of 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 stage 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 all the time challenged my gamers to have a way of respect and delight in the truth that folks gave their life for them to have a possibility 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 just’re saying. You’ll be able to see it, really feel it, contact it.”
And the work stays.
“I wish to imagine issues are intentional,” mentioned Hagans, who performed at Virginia and leads the Groundskeepers. “We won’t change the previous, however make a greater future. However even the actual 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 all the time the affiliation that it must be recognized, that it is not the norm, and I feel 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.
“Regardless of the place you’re, as a coach, you search for any Black head coach that will get the chance, as a result of his success solely supplies alternatives for extra folks to come back. It is unfair. I do not know if it’s going to ever change. However the one factor that I’m sure of is that I’ve a possibility to assist assist Coach Elliott, and my goal is to assist him develop into one of the best head coach doable. So hopefully at some point, there might be much less taking a look at a Black head coach and extra taking a look at one of the best 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 duty he has, however he needs the main focus to be much less on being a minority coach and extra on what he needs to perform on the faculty — together with successful championships whereas graduating all his gamers.
“Rising up, you’ll all the time hear feedback: ‘You are sensible for a Black man,’ or ‘You are very articulate for a Black man,'” Elliott mentioned. “These are challenges that you need to overcome however but they inspire you simply to be revered as a man. Can I simply be a wise man? Can I be an articulate man? I simply wish to be a man. As a result of on the finish of the day, my pores and skin coloration 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.