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After Mendenhall’s sudden departure, the Tony Elliott era dawns

“[Y]ou can win at the highest level, and you can do so while achieving excellence in education, leadership and service,” says Tony Elliott, new UVA head football coach.

Matt Riley

At an outdoor press conference on a sun-splashed December afternoon, former Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott was introduced as Virginia’s 41st football coach, succeeding Bronco Mendenhall, who resigned unexpectedly 11 days earlier.

It was a whirlwind courtship. UVA was not in the market for a coach. A season-ending four-game losing streak notwithstanding, Mendenhall had the program on solid footing, compared to where it was when he took over in 2015. His last five teams qualified for bowl games while setting a record for most All-ACC Academic selections, finding that sweet spot between academic integrity and athletic success that seemingly made him an ideal fit at UVA. A youthful 55, he appeared to be in it for the long haul.

“I think everyone was shocked,” director of athletics Carla Williams said.

Mendenhall’s sudden resignation set in motion the latest reset of a program that, despite its recent success, faces some baked-in challenges that Elliott will have to handle. UVA’s academic standards are among the toughest in the nation, limiting the pool of recruits. The program’s facilities, primarily the outdated and cramped headquarters in the McCue Center, are by officials’ own admission among the worst. While the school’s unwillingness to compromise on the former is admirable, its delay in doing anything about the latter lent fuel to those inclined to believe that maybe football just isn’t that important to UVA and its fans.

UVA’s McCue Center, built in 1991. Steve Hedberg

“Facilities matter,” said former Cavalier football great Chris Long (Col ’08), when asked after the press conference about the urgency of replacing the 30-year-old McCue Center. “I think some people around here think: beautiful place, we’re rated the best place to live. Well, that’s great for people that live here. These football players, they live in this building. They eat, sleep, breathe in this building.

“For people that want to support this program, we’ve got to make a decision: What do you want?”

Virginia finally made one. Three days before Elliott was hired, the Board of Visitors approved a $10 million down payment on a $65 million replacement for McCue, a vote Mendenhall had been seeking since his first day on the job. Without it, it’s not at all certain that UVA could have landed Elliott, who was regarded as one of the nation’s top assistant coaches and had been patient about finding just the right place to launch his career as a head coach.

At 42, he arrives with a championship pedigree, after 11 seasons as a top lieutenant to Dabo Swinney at Clemson, which won the national title in 2016 and 2018 and reached the championship game in 2019. He also brings a compelling personal story. He was briefly homeless on the streets of Los Angeles as a child, and he was in the car as his mother was killed in an auto accident when he was 9 years old. With his father in jail at the time, Elliott settled in South Carolina with an aunt and uncle.

A walk-on at Clemson, Elliott earned a degree in engineering and was two years into a career as an industrial engineer at Michelin when he changed course and decided to get into coaching. For him, it was a way of giving back what he’d received from the game.

“I was a lost child because of the circumstances,” he said. “But by the grace of God, I was saved by my family and my aunt, football, education.”

Tony Elliott
Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Elliott launched his coaching career at South Carolina State and then coached at Furman before landing at Clemson in 2011. He won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach in 2017 and had been linked to several job openings in recent years. He was reportedly a leading candidate at Duke but said Swinney told him the Virginia job was a perfect fit, and “that’s all I needed to hear.”

“My goal is to contribute to changing the narrative in college football and demonstrate that you can win at the highest level, and you can do so while achieving excellence in education, leadership and service.”

Mendenhall threaded that needle about as well as any Cavalier coach has since George Welsh, who proved in the 1990s that UVA football could be relevant nationally. Mendenhall did it in his own idiosyncratic way, arriving in 2015 from BYU talking of metrics and organizational design, discipline and accountability, sounding as much like a management consultant as a traditional coach.

He made players earn their jersey numbers at practice. They celebrated wins by breaking a rock with a sledgehammer. He spoke often of his passion for developing young people. Football was a vehicle for doing that.

Under Mendenhall’s systematic approach, Virginia made sequential progress on the field, culminating with the program’s first ACC Coastal Division title and Orange Bowl appearance in 2019.

Former head coach Bronco Mendenhall celebrates with his team after a win against the South Carolina Gamecocks during the Belk Bowl in 2018.  Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The past two seasons, played during a pandemic, had been a leveling-off. Along the way, as the sport grew ever more commercialized, Mendenhall spoke of how his values—centered on traditional notions of student-athletes—stood in contrast to the way the game was moving in some quarters. Commenting on what he termed the “financially driven, entertainment-oriented” move of the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma to the Southeastern Conference, he told the Board of Visitors that he was aligned with  the “different” values espoused by an alliance of 41 schools in the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12, which pledged a commitment to broad-based athletic programs that function as part of the educational mission of the institutions.

“There has to be something more than football for me to be compelled,” Mendenhall said.

Not that he didn’t emphasize the need to keep up in some areas. At his introductory press conference, he spoke of the need to keep pace in the facilities arms race and replace the McCue Center. It was a liability when recruiting top prospects then and became even more of one later in his tenure.

Speaking to the Board of Visitors last summer, Mendenhall said the school had recently lost eight top recruits for the same reason. To them, he said, it didn’t seem that UVA cared enough about football.

While making the case to the board for a new building, he emphasized that he wasn’t asking out of self-interest.

“I’m speaking for the University of Virginia and whomever the coach is here, to help this institution,” he said.

If that was a clue Mendenhall was considering leaving, no one picked up on it publicly at the time. And in fact, Mendenhall said his decision to walk away had nothing to do with changes in the sport or Virginia’s subpar facilities. Rather, after 31 years as a football coach, he said he was looking to “step back from college football and reassess, renew, re-frame and reinvent, with my wife as a partner, our future and the next chapter of our lives.”

A devout Mormon, Mendenhall said he hoped to “be helpful to others, impactful to others, inspiring to others, to do things of real value and substance.” What form that would take, he didn’t know just yet.

His goal moving forward?

“I would like the end of my life to add so much value that people forgot I was a football coach,” he said.

Mendenhall had hoped to coach one more game, but the Fenway Bowl was canceled due to coronavirus issues on the Cavalier team. With the program’s 40th coach officially done, the 41st took over in December, with hopes for a seamless transition.

“We are going to have the facility here soon,” Elliott said at his press conference. “But there’s a lot that goes into building a championship program, a championship culture, and I’m looking forward to getting started on that.”

Ed Miller is Senior Editor of Virginia Magazine.