Tony Elliott knows he left the best job in college football. There’s no doubt in his mind about that, he says now.
“I worked for my position coach, someone I considered a mentor, a father figure, and he was proud to help me grow,” Elliott said. “I had a great, great situation.”
Clemson too. Over a five-year span with Dabo Swinney at the helm, Elliott and Jeff Scott as offensive coordinators, and Brent Venables as defensive coordinator, the Tigers made five consecutive college football playoffs and won two national titles. Clemson was the model of consistency and continuity, succeeding unlike the revolving door staff of Alabama and Nick Saban. And his assistants were paid handsomely for it. After Scott’s departure and the reduction of coordinating staff at Elliott and Venables, each of them was earning over $2 million a year.
They got to do what they love at the highest level with people they love, for a salary that many Group of 5 head coaches would envy. It really was the best job they could think of, even if it wasn’t a head coaching job.
“We were winning at the highest level,” Venables said. “This place has been a standard in college football for a very long time.”
Both Elliott and Venables had declined interest in head coaching opportunities previously; they knew they could afford to be picky. But all of a sudden this winter, the right positions opened up at the right time. Venables went to Oklahoma, replacing Lincoln Riley after his dizzying departure to USC. Elliott went to Virginia, taking over from a Bronco Mendenhall coach who just wanted to get away from the routine. Longtime defensive coordinator Mike Elko — another member of Texas A&M’s $2 million assistant club — has made the same leap and is gearing up for his first season as Duke’s head coach.
Three of the nation’s top coordinators have gone on to become three of the nation’s most intriguing freshman head coaches. The very specific reasons each made the jump now vary, but they share more in common than meets the eye.
“Either you do (this job) just because you are looking for something external, be it money, notoriety, fame, power, or you do it because you focus on young people “, Elliott said. “When you focus on young people, you want to create a good program. A good program is different from a good team. I learned that from Coach Swinney.
“With a program, you have to take the time to build the foundations and establish the guardrails for your program and create a culture. Whereas if you’re just trying to have a good team, then it’s going to be from year to year, and it’s going to fluctuate. … It was going to take some type of work with the right things in place, a real opportunity to succeed, a real opportunity to build a program the way I think it needed to be built without having to navigate through a bunch of external influences .
This is something Swinney preached to both Elliott and Venables: the college president’s alignment was important. Academic support for players mattered. A commitment to facilities and resources was important, and it had to be immediate, not a vague promise that something would happen in five years. (Virginia and Oklahoma have announced facility plans this offseason.)
When Elko first spoke with Duke athletic director Nina King, of course, he wanted to impress her. But he also hoped to get a sense of the Blue Devils’ commitment to a sport in which they had historically had very little success, save for a recent streak under David Cutcliffe. Duke increased what he was willing to spend on his assistant coaching payroll, which convinced Elko that the Blue Devils were serious about giving him the tools he would need, beyond just telling him that they were.
“If we could build the infrastructure, then we could get help. If we get help, we can fix anything that needs fixing on campus,” Elko said.
One of the reasons Elko thought it was time to make this leap was the significant challenge it presented. He had served as defensive coordinator for FBS for 13 consecutive seasons. He enjoyed understanding how to play with the strengths of each alignment schematically and getting to know each class of player.
“But you kind of get to the point where you feel like having a different yearly schedule that’s not the same routine,” Elko said. “I didn’t know if it would be as a head coach. I don’t know if it would be in the NFL. I really had no idea which road I was going to end up taking. It was all about finding the right opportunity.
“As things happen, you entertain them and nothing really goes right. Then this one comes, and it seems like the perfect fit. So dive in and see where it leads.
Elko freely admits that his career “rose rapidly” when he jumped from Wake Forest to Notre Dame before the 2017 season. It was then that he became one of the best-known defensive coordinators in the game. sport, which led Jimbo Fisher to lure him to lead his defense at Texas A&M. Five years ago, he remembers thinking he had no idea what might happen with his career.
Venables was never engrossed in the idea of becoming a head coach, he says. He knew he was learning from the Hall of Fame coaches he worked for every day he spent with them, so he knew he would be ready when the time came.
“I worked, did a lot of hard, dirty work in the dark,” Venables said. “It’s better to be prepared for an opportunity that never comes than to be unprepared when it does. You try to keep your head down. You try to be where your feet are, instead of being in two places at once trying to climb the corporate ladder. I’m someone who chose not to do that. I didn’t want to be a wandering coach. I didn’t want to live in a sack and worry about stability and family life.
“So… It’s Oklahoma.”
Elliott reflects on the growth he experienced when he moved from job coach to coordinator in 2015. He had to learn how to manage more players, but he also had to learn how to manage the adults on the staff. Every year after that, he continued to expose himself to the “adult aspects” of the business — CEO-type responsibilities in fundraising, coordinating with university officials, compliance efforts, everything in between.
“As the head coach you are responsible for all of this,” he said.
Virginia was on Elliott’s short list. He had done some general research on which schools he knew he wanted to entertain advanced and which ones he didn’t. He didn’t want to waste anyone’s time, confident that the right call would come. And Virginia had what he was looking for – scholars, a conference, a venue – and what he knew he could use to build on. Still, the decision required deliberation and soul-searching, he says. Elliott had to make sure that Virginia could give him what he needed, but he also had to make sure that he wanted to trade his responsibilities as coordinator in a place he liked for other responsibilities elsewhere.
Several high-profile coaches have walked away from the industry recently, citing the grueling nature of the gig – the nature of 24/7 recruiting, the impact of name, image and likeness rules, the challenges constant roster building at a time when it’s never been easier for players to move freely. Elliott himself replaces one of the coaches who left abruptly, wanting to spend time with his family and have more balance in his life.
So why engage in it?
“We’re all part of the same coaching fraternity or fraternity, if you want to call it that,” Elliott said. “I just felt like it was my time. These guys who had fought as long as they could to protect the integrity of the game to preserve the collegiate model, and it was up to me to take the relay – like in a relay, I felt that I had to be in the right place to be able to complete my part of the race.
“Yes, there is a lot on the horizon. But I was also intentionally trying to find a place where those things would be important, but they wouldn’t be the most important thing so that I still focused on what really is the essence of college football, and that’s development young men.
Editor’s note: The whole week, Athleticism enters the 2021-22 college football coaching carousel with a series of stories about one of the craziest cycles ever.
(Top illustration: John Bradford / Athleticism; Photos: Ryan M. Kelly and Lance King/Getty Images)