How Tony Elliott's long, winding path led him to Virginia football

After leading the Clemson offense to two national championships, Tony Elliott's decision to join Virginia now -- as the school tackles its history with race -- takes on a deeper meaning. Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports

When Virginia coach Tony Elliott walked into ACC media day last month, his shoes commanded immediate attention.

On one side of his personalized Nikes, Elliott has the names of his wife, Tamika, and their children, A.J. and Ace. On the other side, he has a Clemson jersey, where he played from 1999 to 2003. His left shoe has the date he was hired as head coach of the Cavaliers, Dec. 10, 2021, written inside the Nike swoosh -- a day he had been waiting for since starting his coaching career in 2006.

Next to the swoosh, there is a phrase written in orange capital letters, save for the final word, written in blue: "A man will be defined by the condition of his heart."

The shoes, and particularly that phrase, encapsulate Elliott's path to Charlottesville: That of a biracial man who grew up in a Black household, graduating college with an engineering degree, switching paths to coaching, becoming the highest paid offensive coordinator in the country and now one of 14 Black FBS head coaches.

The shoes are a vehicle for expression, allowing him to show who he is and what he represents. He calls them an "important part of Black culture," while simultaneously wanting to be viewed as more than what some see first.

"I know that I am a minority," Elliott said. "I just don't want it to be solely about that."

It is easy to say that Elliott is the right coach at the right time for Virginia -- a Black coach hired by Carla Williams, a Black woman and athletic director, at a university that has taken steps to address its own history with race in recent years. But what he represents takes on a deeper meaning than football coach.

That is especially true for players such as linebacker Nick Jackson, part of the "Groundskeepers," a group the Virginia football team formed in 2020 to work toward goals in their collective fight for racial and social change.

"It just shows how far we've come, honestly," Jackson said. "We know the history of UVa, with slavery and all the stuff that came to make UVa happen. But we can also just celebrate what's happening now."

Elliott believes things happen for a reason. While outside observers may have wondered why it took him so long to land a head-coaching job when he was among the hottest assistants in college football, Elliott is steadfast in his resolve that patience led him to Virginia in this particular moment in time.

IN 2011, ELLIOTT returned to his alma mater, Clemson, as running backs coach under Dabo Swinney. The move came five years after leaving his job as an engineer at Michelin and his first assistant coaching jobs at South Carolina State and Furman. Elliott was seeking greater purpose.

"I really challenged him on that," Swinney said of the career change. "Because he was making a lot of money. He told me he felt like he wasn't impacting lives. To me, that's what coaching should be about."

Clemson was a return home, but Elliott also found a kindred spirit in Swinney.

"He had never coached running backs a day in his life," Swinney said. "I didn't hire him because he's a great running backs coach, I hired him because of who he is, and those characteristics that he has, his attributes and his aptitude and his willingness to put in the work and show up. We align in how we think."

In late 2014, Swinney promoted Elliott to co-offensive coordinator and primary playcaller. At the time, Elliott was one of seven Black offensive coordinators in the Power 5. That same year, Elliott attended the NCAA Champion Forum, an opportunity for minority assistants to meet athletic directors and other administrators, make connections, run through mock interviews and get a better understanding of what decision-makers are seeking when hiring head coaches.

Elliott realized two things quickly: He was not sure he wanted to be a head coach, and even if he did, he was nowhere near ready.

"I wasn't trying to plan my life because I learned through my experience with engineering that the plans of man are many, but ultimately the Lord orders your steps," Elliott said. "If I was going to be one of the highest-paid or most-coveted offensive coordinators and never become a head coach, then I was fine with that. If it was meant for me to become a head coach, then I was content with that."

Elliott emerged as one of the top offensive coordinators in the country after helping the Tigers win two national championships, thanks in large part to his developing two future first-round NFL draft picks at quarterback -- Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence.

Because of his prominence at Clemson, Elliott's name often appeared on lists projecting coaching hires. But in reality, Elliott had only two serious inquiries during the past five seasons. Some of that is a result of his insistence to only interview for open jobs after coaching in the ACC championship game, by which point many schools had made hires.

But Elliott also stood firm that he was not going to take a job just to take a job. It's the reality facing minorities: Black head coaches generally only have one shot to get it right. Of the 41 Black head coaches who have been hired on the Power 5 level since 1981, only eight have gotten another Power 5 head coaching opportunity. That includes Mike London, the first Black head coach at Virginia from 2010 to 2015. Though London has gotten another head coaching opportunity, it is on the FCS level at William & Mary.

"We don't just need more; we need guys to be in positions to be successful," Elliott said. "For me, the patience was about getting myself into a situation where I had what I felt was a legitimate shot to be successful. Because it didn't matter if I got a job, what's going to matter is how well I do with the job."

"I always told him, 'It's not about being a young head coach, it's about being an old head coach,'" Swinney said. "He could afford to be patient. He was making more money as a coordinator than a lot of head coaches, so that afforded him the luxury of being selective. But he's been preparing for the opportunity for a long time."

When the phone call came from Virginia, Elliott felt an instant connection with Williams, one of three Black women athletic directors in Power 5. He had a familiarity with the region, conference and recruiting area. But Virginia also represented much of what he wanted in a program -- strong academic profile, the ability to build a program the way he wanted and a chance to settle down and raise his family.

After 11 seasons at Clemson, Elliott's patience was rewarded.

"He had been on everybody's radar so it's not like he was waiting to be discovered," Williams said. "But once I talked to him, it was obvious what we should be doing here."

Williams said she did not set out to hire a Black head coach when she started the interview process. But she also knew that "only a handful" of people could coach at Virginia.

"The goal is to compete for national championships without compromising any of the academic values of UVa," Williams said. "The student-athletes that come here choose a more difficult route, and our coaches understand that, and they have to recruit to that. So you've got to be totally committed to these young people.

"After talking to Tony, it just became clear that he was the right person."

ELLIOTT COMES TO CHARLOTTESVILLE at a time when both the university administration and a subset of the football team have become more vocal about acknowledging the past and pushing for change. Among the biggest: In 2020, the university completed the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers to share the untold history of the enslaved people who built, worked and lived at the University of Virginia.

There is also a self-guided tour called "Enslaved African Americans at the University of Virginia" on its Walking Tour of Grounds app, part of an initiative school president Jim Ryan implemented "to add context to the story of UVa's past by emphasizing the contributions to University life made by enslaved people," according to a university news story.

The murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 sparked renewed conversations among the football team about ways players could stand up and be heard on racial and social justice matters. Twelve players, led by associate head coach-receivers coach Marques Hagans, formed "The Groundskeepers," and they started a "Take Back Our Grounds Walk" to help increase awareness about the university's past. The walk begins at Heather Heyer Way in downtown Charlottesville, named for the woman killed during the "Unite the Right" protest in 2017, and includes a stop at the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers.

On a warm April afternoon, Jackson, along with wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. and defensive back Chayce Chalmers gather at Heather Heyer Way to begin the walk that eventually ends at the Rotunda -- the signature architectural accomplishment designed by university founder Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, himself a slave owner.

Along the way, the players explain the history of the university and the city itself -- starting with the fact that enslaved people built the campus. They also explain why it is especially meaningful for them to have a Black head coach as the face of Virginia football.

"It feels really good having somebody I can relate to and understand some of the players' circumstances who might not come from privilege or come from the typical situations," said Davis, who grew up an hour from where Elliott went to high school in South Carolina. "Just being at [Virginia], there's not a lot of Black people here, so it's nice having someone you can connect to and talk to."

Though the group was formed before Elliott became head coach, its importance is not lost on him. Elliott recalled participating in a player-organized march at Clemson after Floyd was murdered.

"My aunt who raised me was a school principal and she attended South Carolina State and her generation had to march in hopes of my generation never having to march, and I'm at Clemson University, where I graduated with an engineering degree with honors, and I'm having to march," Elliott said. "After going through and experiencing that, you're discouraged. There's a little bit of anger. But after you flush all those emotions, then your motivation comes back."

In early August, Elliott had the opportunity to do the walk for the first time and found a new level of appreciation for not only the players who remain committed to the Groundskeepers, but for the university taking steps to address its past.

"Doing the walk, it becomes more real for you," Elliott said. "I've always challenged my players to have a sense of respect and pride in the fact that people gave their life for them to have an opportunity to be where they are. So it puts it truly in context because now it's not just something that you're saying. You can see it, feel it, touch it."

And the work remains.

"I like to believe things are intentional," said Hagans, who played at Virginia and leads the Groundskeepers. "We can't change the past, but make a better future. But even the fact we have to say it's not a coach being hired, it's a Black coach, that lets society understand where we still are. There's always the association that it has to be identified, that it's not the norm, and I think that is the hardest part for especially young, aspiring African American coaches, because the opportunity to get to that point is so few and far between.

"No matter where you are, as a coach, you look for any Black head coach that gets the opportunity, because his success only provides opportunities for more people to come. It's unfair. I don't know if it'll ever change. But the one thing that I am certain of is that I have an opportunity to help support Coach Elliott, and my objective is to help him become the best head coach possible. So hopefully one day, there will be less looking at a Black head coach and more looking at the best coach available, and if he happens to be Black, so be it. That's the day I'm hoping for."

Elliott wants to be clear he understands the responsibility he has, but he wants the focus to be less on being a minority coach and more on what he wants to accomplish at the school -- including winning championships while graduating all his players.

"Growing up, you would always hear comments: 'You're smart for a Black guy,' or 'You're very articulate for a Black guy,'" Elliott said. "Those are challenges that you have to overcome but yet they motivate you just to be respected as a guy. Can I just be a smart guy? Can I be an articulate guy? I just want to be a guy. Because at the end of the day, my skin color shouldn't matter. The condition of my heart really should be what defines me as a man."

He wears his Nike sneakers as he says this, the phrase impossible to miss. The ink on those sneakers is as permanent as the values he believes in and the work he has left to do.