A conversation we shared in February has not stopped replaying in my head ever since the devastating details of Sunday night’s tragic shooting at the University of Virginia were revealed early Monday morning.
I hadn’t covered Cavaliers coach Tony Elliott all that long — about two months since his hiring last December — when we chatted in a hallway outside of a hotel ballroom after he and his staff appeared at a clinic in Richmond for the state’s high school coaches.
We discussed Elliott’s vision for “The Model Program” he wanted to create at UVa and, more importantly, why he got into the coaching profession in the first place. Remember, he graduated from Clemson with an engineering degree and was in a real-world job at Michelin before beginning his climb from assistant at South Carolina State to the Tigers’ star offensive coordinator into his current post with the Cavaliers.
“I wanted to use my life experience and my football experience,” Elliott said on that February afternoon, “and to be able to help young men realize the full potential that they have both on and off the field.”
His point of view hasn’t changed in the months, weeks and games he’s spent at the helm of the Hoos since. He seeks to aid the personal development of his players equally in stride with their on-field aspirations.
It’s why the challenge Elliott faces in the coming days, weeks and months — to guide the Cavaliers in the aftermath of the shooting that killed linebacker and defensive end D’Sean Perry as well as wide receivers Lavel Davis Jr. and Devin Chandler — is daunting, but not insurmountable.
“For me the best coping mechanism is the young men,” Elliott said on Tuesday, “having a chance to be around them and to see them, and to see their pain, to see their hurt just inspires me to keep pushing forward each and every day.”
That heartfelt thought on Tuesday wasn’t dissimilar from what Elliott told me back in February about why he ultimately stayed in coaching when tragedy at Clemson nearly prompted him to walk away from the gridiron.
On top of his offensive coordinator role there, he was the running backs coach, too. And C.J. Fuller, a former Clemson running back and a member of the Tigers’ 2016 national championship team, died on Oct. 3, 2018, following complications after surgery on a leg injury he had suffered two months earlier. Another former Clemson running back, Tyshon Dye, drowned in a lake accident the following July.
“Those two young men — CJ Fuller and Tyshon Dye — were two of the sweetest spirits I’ve ever been around,” Elliott said then. “They made me better as a coach. You look at Tyshon’s situation academically and what he was able to overcome and accomplish, and then to see how C.J. matured over his time and stuck with it, it hurt me because it’s like, ‘I’m working every day to see these guys become 30-year-olds and I have two of the guys I’m closest to not make it there,’ so it crushed me.’”
What Elliott said propelled him forward were the former teammates and the families Fuller and Dye left behind. Elliott said he sought their courage to fuel his purpose.
“Just to see the strength [the parents] exhibited,” Elliott said, “man, I couldn’t imagine what they went through. But with how strong they were and how they continue to communicate with me and encourage me, because they saw the impact that I was able to have on their sons and that even though they’re dealing with a tremendous loss, they want other young men to be impacted by the effects of the program we’re trying to build.
“So that’s part of reigniting that motivation,” he continued. “And what I’ve learned from my background and spiritual perspective is when you’re in your weakest moment is really when you find your greatest strength. I needed to go through that and process that to be able to regain motivation to ultimately lead me to this day, because there’s going to be other things that I’m going to have to lean on in difficult times that’s going to push me through so that I can continue to stay true to the calling and course I’m on.”
Elliott knew Perry, Davis and Chandler just like he did Dye and Fuller. On Tuesday, Elliott said he admired Perry’s well-roundedness and all the artistic and musical talents he had outside of football. Elliott said Davis, who Elliott had a bond with through recruiting dating back to Davis’ high school days, “lights up the room” and that Chandler “smiled all the time.”
He also said Tuesday that “there is no chapter on a situation” like the one he’s met with now.
But the first-year boss of the Hoos isn’t without direction either.
He maintained Tuesday that his priority was his players and that he wanted to keep everyone within the program as together as possible in order to lean on each other during the saddest and most difficult of days.
The same way he did at Clemson when he had his doubts about what it would take to find strength after Fuller’s and Dye’s lives were lost.
“Once we were given the clear to communicate,” Elliott said Tuesday, “we immediately got the team together and just started the process of grieving together, fellowshipping and trying to make sure that nobody was isolated and that everybody was together.”