To build the University of Virginia football program his own way, Tony Elliott will go to great lengths – and travel short distances.

Eight steps separate the office of UVA’s first-year head coach and that of Anna Brooks Thomas and Carroll McCray, those tasked by Elliott to, as McCray describes it, “put hands and feet” to Elliott’s vision.

Thomas is the football team’s director of player engagement and McCray is the director of player development and senior adviser to the head coach. No one in the football facility is closer – literally – to Elliott than them. Such proximity has naturally given way to a few revelations about the man who will officially debut as the Cavaliers’ leader on Saturday at Scott Stadium.

Chief among them: Elliott is a nosy neighbor.

McCray and Thomas pose together for a portrait

Carroll McCray and Anna Brooks Thomas, those tasked by Elliott to “put hands and feet” to his vision, hold critical positions within the UVA football program. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

“We’ll be in here throwing things on the wall,” Thomas said, “and he’ll just pop in. ‘Hey, what are y’all doing?’”

Once inside, Elliott has been known to quickly make himself at home – plopping into a couch, crossing his legs and striking up conversation.

No, there’s not a plate of freshly baked cookies in his hands. He’s instead offering fresh ideas to his fellow McCue Center residents.

“One time,” McCray said, “we ran out of whiteboard. Anna had to start on another wall.”

The words are now saved on her computer as a neat six-page document, but Thomas last spring hastily wrote in green dry erase marker the first draft of Elliott’s ultimate game plan for Virginia football players. It involves hospital visits and mission trips; lunches with professors and dinners for good students; golf lessons and financial literacy courses; internships and externships.

“We want to prepare these guys for the transition after football ends,” Elliott said. “The reality of it is, for most players, it’s a hard transition, and it happens before you want it to happen, and – boom! – it hits you in the face.

“I want my kids to be prepared to bob and weave so they get a head start in life.”

Elliott thinks big while not forgetting the small details. On Dec. 13, the day he was introduced as the Wahoos’ coach, the former Clemson University assistant said UVA is set up to fulfill his vision of building “the model program” in college football, the kind that can “win at the highest level” while also “achieving excellence in education, leadership and service.”

With on-field results pending (the season opener is Saturday at 12:30 p.m. against the University of Richmond), the off-field part of his mission has already kicked off.

The Cavalier Code

Under The Model Program, a slogan that’s now seen on video screens throughout the McCue Center and was painted on the custom shoes Elliott wore to the Atlantic Coast Conference Kickoff media event in July, there’s the “Cavalier Code.”

That’s where Thomas, McCray and the whiteboards come in. Elliott, during those office drop-ins, would lead brainstorming sessions for possible initiatives to fit each pillar of the C-O-D-E.

The C stands for character, the O for opportunity, the D for duty and the E for engagement.

“He just had this long list of things and didn’t stop,” McCray said. “He’d say, ‘Move this here, move that there. Here’s what I mean when I say duty. After they graduate, what are their duties as a young man to society? Do they know how to go about buying an engagement ring? When looking at houses, do they know how to get a loan? Do they know how to write a check?’”

Virginia Football – For All Virginia

The Cavalier Code’s purpose, as seen on the Thomas-produced document, is to “develop and empower young men to become men of service to impact others throughout their lives.”

The UVA players are 18 to 22 years old now, enjoying all the perks of a college athlete at a world-class university, but what are they to do at 30 when the game, for most of them, is long over and the next phase of life is under way? That’s the purpose of the Code.

“It gives these guys opportunities while they’re in college to communicate,” Virginia quarterbacks coach Taylor Lamb said, “to speak, to have mentorships, internships. It gives these guys a chance to make those relationships so when football is done, there’s a plan for them to be successful in a job, in life, as a husband.”

Full disclosure: Elliott is far from the first coach in college football history to implement a player development system. In fact, a chunk of the Cavalier Code’s design comes from what he observed during his 11 years on Dabo Swinney’s staff at Clemson.

But that’s not to say Elliott’s version is cookie-cutter. How can anything be cookie-cutter about a guy who spent parts of his childhood homeless on the streets of Los Angeles; who, at 9, lost his mother in a tragic car accident and was sent to South Carolina to live with his aunt and uncle; who went from a walk-on football player at Clemson to a team captain in four years; who earned an engineering degree and a high-paying job at Michelin, only to scrap it after a short time to get into coaching?

Several football players sit on a bench and interact with a boy in a wheelchair
Elliott encourages his players to engage with the Charlottesville community. This includes weekly visits to UVA Children’s. (UVA Athletics photo)

“The adversity I was fortunate enough to overcome with the help of a lot of people,” Elliott said, “it’s created a model for young people that, ‘Man, you can do it. It doesn’t matter where you start, it’s about where you finish.’”

Elliott’s personal story is “woven into the fabric” of the Cavalier Code, Thomas said.

“It’s very much his experiences impacting the program,” she said, “From our first idea meeting, he’s talked about it. When he got to Clemson (as a player), he wasn’t organized, and he had to become organized as far as going to classes and what his class schedule looked like.

“He went off and became an engineer and found out it didn’t fulfill him the way that football did, so he found his way back into a football career.

“So with our opportunity [pillar], how do we find our guys a fulfilling career that they will love and experience the whole time?”

Perhaps no one on Virginia’s staff is more qualified to speak on the uniqueness of Elliott’s approach than receivers coach Marques Hagans. The UVA alumnus played for Al Groh and has coached under each of Groh’s successors, from Mike London to Bronco Mendenhall to Elliott.

“The stuff that’s already been accomplished behind the scenes, it’s really exciting,” Hagans said. “The guys are very appreciative to be a part of The Model Program. I think, when it’s all said and done, it’s going to be something completely different in college football and give us an opportunity to stand by ourselves.”


Graduate student Anthony Johnson is a starting cornerback for the Cavaliers who made a team-best three interceptions last season. Phil Steele, a prominent national magazine covering college football, has projected Johnson to be an All-ACC selection this fall. Johnson is also on “watch lists” to play in a couple postseason NFL Draft showcase games – the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Bowl.

So, sure, there’s a real chance that his first move post-UVA is playing football at a professional level.

Then again, Johnson also might already feel comfortable applying to any outdoor retailer between here and his hometown of Coconut Creek, Florida. That’s the kind of confidence he gained from interning this past summer at Green Top Sporting Goods in Richmond.

In a suit shop, a man checks the fit of a suit worn by a football player

Preparing them for job interviews post-graduation, Elliott had the Cavaliers fitted for suits this offseason. (UVA Athletics photo)

“I got to do so many things there,” Johnson said. “I got to shadow the CEO and the marketing team. I worked down on the floor. I got to work in the fishing department and go with one of our distributors to see how he tries to sell products to bait and tackle shops and other stores.

“Fishing is a passion of mine. One day, I want to open my own bait and tackle store. So it gave me a great sense of what it could be like. It was just a great experience overall.”

Different players have embraced the benefits of The Cavalier Code in different ways. While Johnson might have found a future career path – ignited by a Thomas connection at Green Top – defensive lineman Ben Smiley has been motivated to attend the next “3.0 Dinner,” an event that debuted in the spring, held off Grounds at a local Italian restaurant, rewarding players hitting a benchmark GPA. It’s part of the Code’s engagement pillar.

In Elliott’s program, the Wahoos are referred to as “scholar-athletes” and not “student-athletes.” The title tweak raises levels of both academic expectation and accountability.

“‘Student-athlete’ is just a suggestion; it’s a baseline,” Thomas said. “We want our guys to excel in the classroom.

“Coach Elliott class-checks our players himself. I don’t know how many head coaches do that, but he will be on Grounds with a list.”

Smiley admits he needed that proverbial kick in the pants. Seeking to become the first in his family to graduate from college, the third-year American studies major has, according to Thomas, changed “astronomically” since Elliott’s arrival.

“Coming in, I really struggled with school and staying focused, trying to balance my schedule and getting adjusted to college workouts,” Smiley said. “So it really set me back.

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“But it’s like a dream come true ever since Coach Elliott came here and we talked. It’s like I’ve been fully focused and really into school and football. Coach Elliott told me to ‘treat school like you treat football.’ I watch film every day on football; I watch plays; I do everything right in football. So now I’m applying that same energy in the classroom that I do with football and it’s surely paying off.”

Said Elliott: “For Ben Smiley to now be a guy that the previous staff knew was talented, but wasn’t sure his commitment level, now he’s getting B’s in his classes. He looks better, he’s just completely bought in.”

Elliott, himself, was an Academic All-ACC selection during his senior season at Clemson, when he also made 23 catches for 286 yards and a touchdown as a receiver for the Tigers. He’s a living example of someone who made the most out of school and football. At Virginia, he’s been intentional at connecting the two worlds.

In April, the football program held its inaugural Faculty Appreciation Day, where UVA professors, invited by players they have as students, were able to attend practice and then stay for lunch with the team. Elliott and Athletics Director Carla Williams spoke ahead of the meal.

“We were so thrilled to be there,” said Gregory Propp, the director of the University’s American Sign Language program. He and colleague Rocco Devito attended the event, on the invitation of quarterback Jared Rayman. “I was so impressed with Coach Elliott. One, he’s genuine, and two, he hits on all the things I wanted to hear as a faculty member.

“I don’t have any children, but if I was sending my child here as a student and an athlete, he gave the exact things I’d want to hear. ‘Focus on the person, focus on them being men, make sure they’re going to class. If they’re doing something wrong that’s disruptive, you let me know directly and it’ll be taken care of.’

“It’s rare we as professors get that kind of stuff straight from the coach.”

‘A Why for Everything’

Elliott at Clemson directed one of the most powerful units in college football. The Tigers, averaging over 38 points per game, won two national championships and six ACC titles in the seven seasons with Elliott as the team’s assistant or main offensive coordinator.

In the words of Lamb, UVA’s quarterbacks coach, whose father was Elliott’s boss at Furman University from 2008 to 2010, Elliott is “an X’s and O’s guy who really knows the game of football.”

So why did he lead a recent team meeting with a lesson on diamonds?

McCray, who’s been involved in college football since 1979, had never seen anything like it. “That’s where he catches me off guard,” he said. “Things just pop in his head.”

Elliott asked the team if they could name any of the four main characteristics traditionally used to determine the quality and value of a diamond. He even gave them the hint that each starts with “c.”

Five players stand on a golf course
Taking a break from Scott Stadium and the McCue Center, the Cavaliers this summer went to Birdwood for golf lessons. Why? Because “a lot of business decisions and relationships are built on the golf course,” Elliott said. (UVA Athletics photo)

When no one successfully guessed carat, cut, clarity and color, Elliott got to a main point of his presentation.

Said Thomas: “He finally told them, ‘All right, we need to learn a little bit more about diamonds. What do you look for in one? How do you buy one for your girl?’”

Elliott is 42 with a wife and two sons. But coming out of college, he said he lacked certain practical skills – i.e. knowing the first thing about an engagement ring – that put him behind in life.

The goal here, as put forth by The Cavalier Code, is to have the current Wahoos as prepared as possible for the moment they become alumni.

“He has a why for everything,” McCray said.

Why did the football team take lessons at Birdwood Golf Club this summer? “A lot of business decisions and relationships are built on the golf course,” Elliott said. “So we’re exposing young men to the game.”

Why did Elliott arrange for the tailoring company he used at Clemson to travel to Charlottesville to have the team fitted for suits? “Long-term, I want them to have a suit for when that time comes and they transition from football, they’re not scrambling to go get one,” he said. “So, now they know how to wear a suit, they know how to put it on. You’d be surprised how many young men, prior to coming to college, don’t own an actual suit – much less one that’s been specially measured for them.”

Why does the team visit UVA Children’s on Fridays? “It’s about engagement and community service,” Elliott said. “I want to take it to a point where we do service trips in our down time, maybe even out of the country. We’re always looking to serve.”

Why has Elliott started a mentorship program connecting current players to successful alumni in the workforce? “It’s so we can find somebody in a field that matches the interest of our players,” McCray said. “The mentor can then walk alongside them and start to guide their career.”


The next chapter of Elliott’s career begins Saturday at Scott Stadium. It’s been nine months since he touted UVA’s potential to become The Model Program in the sport.

His belief hasn’t wavered.

“A combination of different experiences prior to coming here gave me a great appreciation for this institution,” Elliott said. “And now being here and being able to implement so many things, everything has been confirmed.”

All there’s left to do is win.

Media Contact

Andrew Ramspacher

University News Associate University Communications