When he was an assistant coach at Clemson, his alma mater, Tony Elliott would commission shirts for his running backs that read H.E.A.R.T. The acronym stands for Humility, Effort, Attitude, Respect, Toughness.
The coach wanted his players’ hearts to be pure in everything they did. As head coach at Virginia, that motto will now define his program in the wake of a devastating tragedy.
Three of his Virginia football players are dead, allegedly shot by a former Virginia football player. Another player is hospitalized, along with another Virginia student. A class of students is traumatized, and the campus and community are awash in unimaginable grief. A Senior Day is canceled and perhaps the following week’s finale, too.
Football coaches aren’t supposed to deal with matters this heavy. Few people are.
And yet here is Elliott, a week shy of his 43rd birthday, forced again to grow up fast and lead a group forward out of darkness.
“There’s no question, it is a difficult time,” said Sylvester Croom, who in 2004 became the first Black head football coach in the SEC. “But I have no doubt that he’s the man to lead them out of this, because of the kind of man he is.”
The story of the 68-year-old Croom, who will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame next month, and his relationship with Elliott, who is in his first year as a head coach, can tell you a lot about the Cavaliers’ leader — about how he learned to coach a position he never played, how he then went 99-10 and won a pair of national titles as a play caller, and how he finally found the perfect fit in a head job in Charlottesville last December, in the same conference he played and coached in for much of his career.
Elliott’s path into coaching, and the relationships built along the way, can tell you plenty about him, too.
Now he is currently in a spotlight he couldn’t have imagined, drawing upon his own tragic life experiences to help lead those around him. Those who know him best say he is uniquely prepared to handle this moment.