After graduating from James Island Charter High in Charleston, South Carolina, Tony Elliott spent a year at the U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School. He could have gone on to attend the Air Force Academy, but had a change of heart and enrolled at Clemson University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering.
Nonetheless, his experience in Colorado stayed with Elliott. He gained respect for what’s required to succeed at a service academy, and that played a role in several of his hires since taking over as the University of Virginia’s head football coach in December.
Of his new assistant coaches, four came to UVA from service academies: John Rudzinski and Curome Cox from Air Force; Keith Gaither from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York; and Kevin Downing from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Elliott came to Virginia from Clemson, where he spent 11 seasons on head coach Dabo Swinney’s staff, and he’s also been an assistant at South Carolina State University and Furman University.
When he arrived in Charlottesville, Elliott said on a Zoom call Monday, he “really tried to look at, ‘OK, what’s going to be the profile of the student-athlete that you’re going to have to recruit to be successful here?’ It’s closer to what I experienced at the Air Force Academy and at Furman. So I understood during my time at Furman some of the challenges that you have, and then some of the unique things you have to do in recruiting, just in terms of the discipline. You obviously want to get the biggest, fastest strongest guys that you can, but sometimes those guys aren’t fit to be successful academically and socially in certain environments.
“And so the guys from the service academies understood that piece of the equation: how to target a certain type of young men who will fit our profile and then also, in the short term, understanding how to be able to do more with less. I think that if we can keep that mindset as we increase the level of talent and we have that foundation of doing more with less, we’ll be able to maximize the ability of the guys that we recruit in the future.”
Elliott said he was “really, really intentional” in putting together his staff. “I know it took probably a lot longer than some people wanted, but I wanted to make sure that I got the right pieces on the bus and in the right seats so we could hit the ground running with this over this upcoming year.”
Rudzinski, Virginia’s defensive coordinator, also will coach the safeties. Cox will work with the Cavaliers’ cornerbacks. Gaither will coach the running backs and coordinate special teams, and Downing will work with the defensive tackles.
At Clemson, Elliott coached in a program that has tremendous resources. But he hasn’t forgotten what it was like to work at South Carolina State and Furman, Football Championship Subdivision programs that, like the service academies, face obstacles that aren’t found at all Football Bowl Subdivision schools.
“When you start as an FCS guy, you do it all,” Elliott said. “You have to do everything, and you’re the coach, you’re the counselor, you’re the academic liaison, the housing liaison, the financial aid liaison, and you paint the fields, wash the clothes and you do a bit of everything. And so that mindset is where it starts, because I wanted to have people who were like-minded and self-motivated. It doesn’t matter the talent level, but you’ve got to figure out how to get the most out of each player, so that’s the mindset I want to create with this football team, that we have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder and we don’t mind being the underdog. We’re going to scrap and fight, and people aren’t going to necessarily think about us as the big dogs starting out, and so we’ve got to go earn that.”
Elliott succeeded Bronco Mendenhall, who stepped down in December after six seasons at Virginia. In 2017, Mendenhall guided the Wahoos to their first bowl game in six years. UVA won eight games in 2018, including the Belk Bowl, and in 2019 captured its first Coastal Division title.
“Coach Bronco worked his butt off, and his staff did an unbelievable job of taking the program from where they inherited it to when he decided to step away,” Elliott said, “and he built a solid foundation, and I’m just excited it timed up to where I believe I can come in and bring that championship layer to the program.”
To do so, Elliott said, “I need coaches that want to get in there and grind and are truly excited about building something. I think that was important, too, that they shared a vision to get in there, grind and build this thing from where Bronco left it to where we think it can go.”
Elliott retained three of Mendenhall’s assistants: Marques Hagans, Garett Tujague and Clint Sintim. Hagans and Tujague will continue to coach the wide receivers and offensive line, respectively, and Sintim moves from the defensive line to linebackers.
“I’m really, really excited about the three guys that decided to stay on,” Elliott said. “If there was one person that everybody said you have to keep, it was Marques Hagans, and I’ve seen that now, having the chance to be around him. He has an unbelievable presence. Very, very humble. Relates very, very well to the players. He knows the University of Virginia.
“Tujague, he gets after it on and off the field, in recruiting. He’s tenacious. He dreams big, a lot like I do. Obviously, when you dream big, there’s going to be times when you get disappointed. But that never stops his confidence. The players love him. I gave the players the opportunity to voice their opinion on who they wanted to stay, and all of his guys had nothing but great things to say about him.
“Clint is a quiet guy, but a very deliberate guy. He’s an intentional guy. Obviously, a great player here [who has] great relationships with his players and the staff.”
Hagans and Sintim aren’t the only former UVA stars on the staff. There’s also Chris Slade, whom Elliott hired to coach the Cavaliers’ defensive ends. Slade previously was head coach at Pace Academy in Atlanta, a school that Elliott recruited for Clemson.
In his conversation with Slade about returning to Virginia, Elliott recalled, “I said look, ‘I chased two big linemen at [Pace]. They went somewhere else. I can’t go 0 for 3 with you, so you’re destined to be the one that I actually get out of Pace Academy.’”
Slade, who was an All-America defensive end for the Cavaliers, took his time before committing, Elliott said. “He’s always wanted to come back home, but he also made it clear that he wanted to come back in the right situation. So I’m very grateful that he believes in me and that this is the right time for him to come back and help us restore the glory, so to speak.”
Joining Hagans, Tujague and Gaither on the offensive side are Des Kitchings and Taylor Lamb. Kitchings is offensive coordinator and tight ends coach, and Lamb works with the quarterbacks.
Elliott had connections with Kitchings, Gaither, Downing and Lamb before coming to UVA.
Kitchings, another former Air Force assistant, coached the Atlanta Falcons’ running backs in 2021. Elliott said he and Kitchings had talked “for years about trying to link back up, and I’m very, very honored that he would leave the NFL to come back and be a part of what we’re trying to build here.”
When Elliott was at South Carolina State, he coached against Gaither and Downing, who were at another HBCU, Winston-Salem State University. Elliott is excited to finally be working with them and called it “a match made in heaven, so to speak, them coming from Army and Navy, respectively, and their backgrounds recruiting high-academic, high-character young men and being able to put together plans when maybe you might not have as much as everybody else. So they understand the importance of that.”
Lamb, a former Appalachian State University star who comes from a legendary coaching family, was a boy when Elliott met him. “He’s a guy that’s got an unbelievable amount of confidence, a great amount of knowledge,” Elliott said, “and I felt like was going to be a good fit with his personality and youth as we assembled that offensive group.”
Hagans, Sintim and Slade grew up in Virginia, and most of the other assistants have roots in the Mid-Atlantic region.
UVA has struggled to land in-state prospects in recent years, and Elliott wants to change that. Still, he said, when he was putting together his staff, “that wasn’t the ultimate decision-maker. For me, it started with making sure, first and foremost, that these guys are good men, men of character. That’s where it starts for me, guys that are really, really good teachers and then have the ability to recruit. I think if you get the first two right, recruiting will take care of itself because at the end of the day, recruiting is still about relationships.
“But I did want to have a mixture of guys, guys that have ties to the state. I knew what it was like to grow up in South Carolina and then play for one of the in-state schools. [UVA has] three guys on staff that played here, that are from the state, that have relationships in their respective areas. And then you have Tujague, who’s a guy that’s been in-state for the last six years recruiting but then also has some West Coast ties, because again, I think at some point, you want to build your brand [to] where you can go national. Not making that your focus, but you can go national to supplement.”
Rudzinski “doesn’t really have any ties to Virginia,” Elliott said, “but that was a unique fit. I needed a defensive coordinator, and so [recruiting] might not have been a priority in his position. His job is to come in and to lead the defense and then [be supported by] guys that can go help recruit until he develops those relationships. But for me, the focus when I say ‘in-state’ is more so just being transparent, being authentic, trying to connect. Just building relationships and showing that we’re serious about making a commitment to the guys in-state, and then also helping educate the [high school] coaches on what we’re looking for as well.”
Cox grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and starred at Maryland before moving on to the NFL.
Elliott said that Rudzinski told him that “if there’s one coach he could bring with him, that [Cox] was his guy, and I felt like I owed that to John to at least consider him. And then when he came on the interview I was [on], it was confirmed. I had the conviction that it was the right move to make.”
Mendenhall announced Dec. 2 that he planned to step down as head coach after the Cavaliers’ bowl game that month. (COVID-19 issues later forced UVA to withdraw from the Wasabi Fenway Bowl, which was canceled.) After Mendenhall’s announcement, numerous Virginia players entered the transfer portal. Some ended up staying, but several others, including linebacker Noah Taylor and offensive linemen Bobby Haskins, Olu Oluwatimi and Ryan Swoboda, chose to transfer.
“I wish I would have had a little bit more time with some of the other guys that decided to leave, just to give them a true understanding of who I am and the staff that I was going to put together,” Elliott said. “But I’m really excited for those guys [who chose to return]. We had conversations. We sat down and I told them, ‘You just gotta trust me that I’m gonna put together all the best staff that I possibly can,’ and I said, ‘It’s going to be comprised of men that are going to help you grow first and foremost off the field, and then also have the skill and the expertise to be able to develop you on the field.’”