Tony Elliott at spring practice. Courtesy of the University of Virginia.

When former Clemson football assistant Tony Elliott was being pursued for the head-coaching job at Virginia, it’s unlikely that he was aware of the official title.

Tony Elliott. Courtesy of the University of Virginia.

It’s known as the Fralin Family Head Football Coach, named for Roanoke healthcare executive Heywood Fralin and his wife, Cynthia, who gave a $5 million endowment for the position. (Disclosure: Fralin is one of our donors, but donors have no say in news decisions. See our policy.)

It was Elliott’s predecessor, Bronco Mendenhall, who was first affiliated with the Fralin brand in 2020 and the Fralins were on hand in Roanoke when UVa supporters were introduced to Elliott last week.

Virginia speakers at Hunting Hills Country Club included Dirk Katstra, executive director of the Virginia Student Aid Foundation for the 26th year. Former men’s basketball standout Isaiah Wilkins spoke for that program.

“I have a vision for each one of my players,” Elliott said. “What I saw in Isaiah [Wilkins] is that vision. That was, at 30 years old, that he could stand in front of a room of very successful people and command their attention.”

Elliott was the new kid on the block but you’d never know it.

“I could have gone a lot of places,” Elliott said. “I’m not bragging on myself, but I was very intentional because I wanted to be in a place where education was vital and I would never feel pressured and would never be asked to compromise. I was looking for that and UVa has that.”

Elliott’s life story is chilling.

“My mom was killed in a car accident on the way to church when I was nine,” said Elliott, who was born in Watsonville, Calif., close to the central California coast. 

“In high school, for a long time, I didn’t have any sense of faith and any sense of belief because you can imagine the trauma you experience as a nine-year-old. 

“A dad took me in who was not very mature and exposed me to a lot of domestic violence. I’ve seen drug violence and drugs and alcohol, so I wasn’t kidding when I said that, if I had stayed in California, I probably would have been a statistic. And, I thank the Lord for that.

“It wasn’t till I was in college that I made a leap of faith.”

After playing from 1999-2003 at Clemson, where he was a wide receiver, Elliott was an assistant at South Carolina State and Furman before joining the staff at Clemson, where he eventually was the offensive coordinator.

“At Clemson, they have a [national] championship,” he said. “They’re going to have to change their mindset [at UVa].  It’s going to take a little longer, I’m committed to making sure that we take care of the state of Virginia first.

“We’re trying to find good football players that have a ceiling that they have not reached and they can become invested in the program. Football players have big egos but a lot of them suffer from self- esteem.”

Then there’s rival Virginia Tech.

“I’m not worried about that team down the road and I’m going to tell you why,” Elliott said. “Because leaders focus on winning and losers focus on winners, right? We’ve got to change our mindset.”

Elliott made several references to Scott Stadium, which hasn’t always served as a positive for UVa teams. 

“If you bring energy to Scott Stadium — right ! — the players will play to their full potential,” he said. “So, we’ve got to stick together. This is not the Tony Elliott football program. It’s our football program and everybody has a role.

“We have a great quarterback [in Brennan Armstrong] and all those things. The best thing for me now is to change the mindset. Bronco [Mendenhall] did a great job and I’m very, very grateful and spent a lot of time with him that he didn’t have to. He’s very passionate about the program.”

So, what’s next?

“Now, it’s time to take [the program] into a championship mindset, So, how long will it be? I have a lot of respect for Virginia Tech but it’s about us and how we manage. We can’t be listening to what people say on the outside. 

“You have to know what you’re doing each and every day, so there’s no guesswork. If it’s a 12 o’clock game, it’s not an excuse for Scott Stadium not to be full, is it? I fully understand why I’m sitting here.

‘This is an opportunity to build something and build it the right way, leaving a legacy for which all of us can be proud.”

Doug Doughty

Doug Doughty has been writing for more than 50 years starting as a high school student in Washington, D.C., through his undergraduate years at the University of Virginia, and 47 years at the Roanoke Times...