Lessons for their children: Clemson's Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott reflect on the experiences that shaped them
CLEMSON, S.C.—Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott share a title (co-offensive coordinator), but they come from vastly different worlds. Elliott's path was altered by an unthinkable childhood tragedy. Scott grew up in comfort as the son of a major college football coach.
Despite their disparate childhoods, the men Tigers coach Dabo Swinney tapped to replace Chad Morris last off-season have a few things in common. Both walked on at Clemson to play receiver. Both married women who graduated from Clemson. Both took pay cuts and left comfortable jobs to chase their coaching dreams. And both are about to take on even more responsibility. Late last week, Scott and his wife Sara welcomed a baby girl named Savannah. Early next month, Elliott and his wife Tamika are scheduled to welcome a second son. They want to name him Austin Christopher Elliott. Dad wants to call him Ace. Ace will be A.J. Elliott's little brother.
With those monumental life events—and a game at Memorial Stadium against Notre Dame this Saturday—on the horizon, Campus Rush stopped by Death Valley to ask Elliott and Scott what advice they would give Savannah, Ace and A.J. based on the experiences that helped shape them into the men they are today.
Lesson No. 1: Life can be unspeakably cruel.
Elliott enjoyed a fairly normal childhood in Anaheim, Calif., until age nine. Then a drive to church one Sunday changed everything.
Tony Elliott: I don't think about it much. I appreciate everything I went through. Looking back—and we've all got 20/20 hindsight—I wouldn't change anything. If things had been different, if my mom hadn't passed away, I wouldn't be the individual I am. I'm far from perfect, but those tragic events forced me to kind of put life in perspective. It forced me to grow up and mature at a young age. The negative of that is I missed a lot of my childhood in terms of enjoying things a typical 9- to 15-year-old boy enjoys. I had a lot of responsibility trying to help my sister, who was five years younger.
I remember a lot of it. I remember that I was in the back. I didn't have a seatbelt on. Typical 9-year-old. Don't want to go to church. I'm in the back all by myself. We had a little Volkswagen bus. We were just going to church—the same route we always take. We were coming up on an intersection. There was a big park off to the right, and behind that park about a block away was where church was. We just got T-boned from the side. Somebody ran a red light and hit the car. We went into a violent spin. My mom was halfway ejected. In the process, the car rolled and crushed her a couple times. I remember getting my little sister and my little brother. I have a half-brother. My stepfather was in the car, too. I got [the younger] two out of the car. My stepfather got himself out of the car. I'm looking around for my mom. He starts telling me where she's at. I run over there. She's lifeless in a pool of blood. People had stopped their cars. A lot of people had gotten out. You know what happens at an accident site. Nobody wants to run in and help. So a lot of people just stand around looking. My stepdad tells me to go get help. I run through the park to the church and tell the people what happened. That's the last time I ever saw my mom.
They took us to a church member's house. They told us later that afternoon that my mom passed away in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. From there, it was kind of a blur for a couple of weeks. They didn't let me go to the funeral. They said I was too young.
We were in Anaheim. My dad came and got us from there. We moved with him [to San Diego] for the next three years. That was rough. He was in and out of trouble and not living a lifestyle that's conducive to raising kids. There was constant drama between him and his girlfriends. He was trying to make ends meet, and there was a lot of moving around. He finally gets himself into a little bit of trouble where he has to spend some time in jail, and we get shipped east to family. I stayed in one section of Atlanta. My sister stayed in another part of town. They shipped us back to California after about a year.
Then it was the same stuff. Not much had changed. He finally gets in trouble again. I remember talking to my family. I told them if they get me, I'll never come back. They sent plane tickets for us. They couldn't really keep us together. My sister stayed in Atlanta with the same aunt she was living with before. I went with one of [his father's] older sisters and her family to Charleston.
Lesson No. 2: If you know what you want, make the choices that will help you get it.
Scott played quarterback for Hammond School in Columbia, S.C., in the late 1990s, but he had been around the game his entire life. His father, Brad, was Charlie Ward's offensive coordinator at Florida State. Brad then became the head coach at South Carolina, but was fired after the '98 season and became the offensive line coach at Clemson.
Jeff Scott: My senior year I was getting recruited by Wake Forest, Furman and Newberry. Furman offered me a scholarship to come play quarterback, and I was really leaning toward going there. Then my dad got let go at South Carolina. Tommy Bowden took over here at Clemson as head coach, and coach Bowden offered me an opportunity to come as a preferred walk-on and play wide receiver. I'd had surgery on my throwing shoulder and even though I was able to play my senior year, I knew down the road I was probably going to have to move to receiver anyway. Also, Rich Rodriguez was coming with coach Bowden from Tulane. That was when the spread offense was just getting going.
Ever since I was 10 years old, I knew I wanted to be a college football coach. So a lot of the decisions I made—even at that early point—were to set myself up for the future. That was one. My senior year of high school, I just felt like coming to Clemson and being around coach Bowden and Rodriguez and some of the other coaches on the staff was going to be a better opportunity for me. In the long run, it ended up being great. Even though I didn't get to play as much as I [would've liked], I was able to learn a lot of the concepts of the spread offense. I used a lot of that when I left Clemson to go coach high school ball. I was able to have a lot of success offensively right out of the gate running the same offense I'd run here. It was the exact same. Four wides. Read option. A lot of the same concepts we're doing today.
Tony and I were in the back of the receiver line, so we were stretching partners. It was based on the pecking order, so Tony and I were in the very back. We got to have a five- to seven-minute conversation every day. First time I met him, I could tell he was very smart. He could pick things up very quickly. He was very serious about his business, and he was an extremely hard worker. He was going to stay after practice even if he wasn't going to play a lot that week. After I left, he ended up becoming a captain his senior year. That says a lot coming in as a walk-on. And he was in engineering, so he had a lot more difficult class load than a lot of us.
Lesson No. 3: If you don't know what you want, use your natural talents and you might figure it out.
Elliott's life returned to something resembling normal in high school. After graduating from James Island High in Charleston, he planned to go to the Air Force Academy. That did not turn out as he expected.
Elliott: I went to the Air Force Academy prep school. I wasn't really happy. I tried to leave. You've got basic training during the day, and at night they do bonding exercises. They get you in a room with your squadron, and they say, "Why are you here?" You've got third- and fourth-generation academy kids. They said, "My grandfather flew in this war and I want to be a pilot," or "I want to be an astronaut." I said, "I want to play Division I football." I came to the realization I was there for the wrong reasons. I felt like I was taking somebody else's spot. I told them I wanted to leave. They told me I couldn't. They said I had to stay a certain amount of time. I said, "If y'all won't let me leave, I'm just going to quit eating. I don't want to be here. I'm not going to hurt myself, but I can't guarantee I'm going to be in a good mood every day. I want to go. I made a mistake. You've got to understand that. You've got to respect that." So I had to go through a week of meeting with people. I got an honorable discharge.
So I left. I went home. Because of the timing, I wasn't able to get into school for the fall semester. I applied to the University of Georgia, the University of South Carolina and I applied to Clemson. Clemson was the only school that just accepted me, no questions asked. They said, "We've got a spot for you. Come on."
I was done with football. I didn't know what I wanted to do. I was coming to school to get a degree, and I liked math. That was my favorite subject, so I started taking math classes. I figured the easiest thing to do was transition to engineering. I didn't want to be a mechanical engineer. I didn't want to be an electrical engineer. Industrial engineering was the best field for me because it incorporated the discipline and the thought process and the training of your typical engineer, but you weren't locked into a specific field. You could transition into business a lot easier as an IE.
My aunt tells the story—and it's the truth—that the first thing I did on campus was go to the top of the hill and look through the gate. I had a moment. I thought, "Man, this could be cool." But I had no expectation of ever playing football again. I've always had a spiritual background, but when your mom is killed on the way to church when you're nine and you're the only one in the car without a seatbelt on and you get shipped to your dad, you start having questions about faith and about God. My aunt had sent me to Sunday school. I could recite any verse because I had to go. But I was done with football. I was upset with football. I didn't know any better. I felt like if I did things the right way and tried to be a good person that I was going to get retribution for everything that happened to me. That's truly not how life works.
I had gotten to a point where I didn't want anything to do with football. I felt like it let me down. I had given it everything I had, and it didn't get me the results I wanted. I got back involved with the game after playing pickup basketball in the gym here on campus. There was a guy I had played high school ball against that I didn't know. He recognized me. He remembered the game I had against his team. He was a DB. I was a wide receiver, and I played the best game of my career. He said, "You should try."
I didn't do it my first year. I had to get my grades together. I tried out the following January . I made the team, went through spring ball and had a solid spring game. My first fall on the team, I make the travel squad. I'm playing on special teams. I letter. My sophomore year, they give me a scholarship. I'm in the two-deep. I'm getting ready to roll. I go down to cover a kick at Georgia Tech and I break my arm. So I miss five games. Going into my junior year, they had oversigned. I knew all along my scholarship was year to year. It could always be taken back. I was a senior in the classroom. I said, "Heck, I played for two years. I'm going to graduate in December. I'm just going to play." Football started to be fun. It became less of a priority and more of a privilege. I became appreciative of everything I had. I didn't expect anything out of the game. I was just enjoying it. At the bowl game, they asked me to come back for my senior year on the field. I said, "I'd love to, but I'm not going to pay for it." So they gave me a scholarship for my senior year. I couldn't play spring ball because I'd already graduated. I came back in the summer. [Rick] Stockstill was my receivers coach who had asked me to come back. He gets the offensive coordinator job at East Carolina. So here comes Dabo.
Lesson No. 4: Avoid shortcuts.
When he graduated from Clemson following the 2003 season, Scott didn't want to take the traditional route into college coaching. He hoped to skip the graduate assistant step. So he started out in high school, which he figured would help him down the road as a recruiter. After working as an assistant, he took over the program at brand-new Blythewood (S.C.) High. His team played JV in 2005. In '06, its first year as a varsity program, Blythewood won the Class 3A state title. Scott was hired as the receivers coach at Presbyterian College, the Clinton, S.C., school that had just moved to the FCS from Division II. Scott had found the job that would allow him to skip the drudgery of GA life.
Scott: I called [Bobby] Bowden. I called my dad. I called a few other coaches in the profession and asked their opinion. They felt like I had done well in high school, and they thought this would be a great start and I might be able to skip being a graduate assistant. I was 26 at the time, and I had been married four years. I was looking at it as a great opportunity to coach at the FCS level, do that for a few years and have an opportunity to move up to the FBS and maybe not have to go through those graduate assistant years.
I really enjoyed it at PC, but I started feeling guilty that I was trying to take a shortcut in the profession. My younger brother John went a completely different route. He went to Harvard, played football and got an undergrad degree in biological sciences. Then he went to Vanderbilt for med school. He spends four years of med school, and after med school he's got another seven or eight years of residencies and fellowships. So, I started thinking to myself that if my profession is as important to me as my brother's is to him, then why am I trying to take a shortcut?
I came to talk to my dad about coming to Clemson as a GA. I was going to have to take a 50% pay cut, and my dad thought I was absolutely crazy. He said I'd be a GA and in two years would get a job exactly like the one I had. Then I told him my reasoning. Growing up being Brad Scott's son, it was important to me to show that I earned everything I got. I didn't want to be looked at as being given anything or taking a shortcut. I went and talked to coach [Tommy] Bowden, and a GA position opened up on the defensive side for 2008. I was making $50,000 at Presbyterian, and I came here to make $22,000 as a graduate assistant. I knew as a GA that you only get a two or three-year window, and I knew the GAs that make it are at the places that have turnover—good or bad—in those two or three years. I really felt like Clemson was going to have positive turnover. They were picked to win the ACC.
Lesson No. 5: If you don't love what you do, it doesn't matter how much money you make.
While Scott toiled in the high school ranks, Elliott used his degree to get a job at a Michelin plant in Sandy Springs, S.C.
Elliott: I worked at Michelin for two years. It was good. I had a great boss, a great work environment, a great schedule. I worked from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Monday through Friday. I didn't have any calls on the weekend. I didn't have any responsibility on the weekend. I was making a bunch of money. But I wasn't fulfilled. I started at $52,000 fresh out of college in 2004. My fiancée [now wife] was making close to 60 [thousand] as a nurse. We were doing well. I had some student loan debt, but we were in a good financial situation. But I couldn't wait until Friday. I hated Mondays. I really liked the people, but I just didn't feel like I had any purpose. I was just trying to get to the weekend. You hate Monday. You just try to keep the pillow over your head. So I said, "Let me try to find something I can use as an outlet."
Exercising wasn't doing it for me. I wanted to volunteer as a coach. I didn't want to jump right into coaching, because football for me was always a security blanket. I just wanted to make sure my feeling wasn't just missing the game. Was this what I really wanted to do? So I worked at Easley (S.C.) High School for spring practice. I'd go to work all day and then go coach there in the evenings. The free work was awesome. I'm out there with the kids. The kids didn't like it too much. I was too hard on them.
We talked about the change, and Tamika was good with it. Financially, she was doing well. It'd be a pay cut, though. I tried to come back as a GA, but the timing didn't work out. But Brad Scott and a couple other coaches connected me with Buddy Pough at South Carolina State. He took a chance on me based on their recommendations. No experience. No nothing. Just an engineer turned football coach. I was coaching receivers and recruiting. I had no clue.
I had just gotten married. We went on the honeymoon to the Bahamas, and I get back and move by myself to Orangeburg. I'm living with another coach and just coaching ball. I don't know any of my [players]. I don't know how to conduct a meeting. I don't know how to do anything. I'm just there ready to coach ball.
Lesson No. 6: You will screw up. Find a way to fix it.
A few hours into his tenure as a GA at Clemson, Scott knew exactly why he'd wanted to skip that step.
Scott: I've been around this my whole life. I understand what the graduate assistants' jobs are. But you remember the old saying about dressing for the job that you want instead of the job that you have? I show up with dress shoes on, a nice pair of khaki pants, a dress shirt. I'm fired up, ready to go. Mike Dooley, who is now one of our football operations directors, was the other graduate assistant. We shared an office.
The back of the bookcase probably had 75 notebooks from the last 10 years. It's day one, I'm going to clean up this office. I'm going to take all the notebooks we don't use and throw them away. We're going to have a clean start on day one. So I spent that morning throwing away 75 binders. I come back from lunch and Vic Koenning, the defensive coordinator, walks in. He says, 'Hey, I need that playbook we have back there in the GA office. It's the only one we have. It's very important. I need you to go back and get that for me.' I knew I'd thrown all of them away. I threw them in the big dumpster out behind the football offices.
So, my one hope on my very first day is they have not thrown out the trash. I go out there, and luckily—some would say unluckily—they had not emptied the trash. It's one of these big dumpsters that you can't reach into. You literally have to get into it. It's me and Mike Dooley. We looked at each other for about three or four minutes. I figured out that I'm going to have to get in this dumpster to get this binder out. In all my dress clothes, I go dumpster diving. Of course, the very last one in the bottom of the dumpster is the playbook he was wanting.
It was really a great reminder for me that you can't be afraid to get dirty and do the type of work no one else wants to do. Also, you're going to screw up, and you'd better figure out how to fix it. I was not going back to coach Koenning without that notebook.
Lesson No. 7: Sometimes, your fate will lie in the hands of other people. It helps if one of those people is C.J. Spiller.
The Clemson staff turned over while Scott was a GA, just not in the way he had imagined. After the Tigers went 3–3 to open the 2008 season, athletic director Terry Don Phillips forced Tommy Bowden to resign. Offensive coordinator Rob Spence was fired. Swinney was named Clemson's interim head coach. Swinney had two immediate openings, so Scott—who had impressed Swinney while helping at camps the previous few years—was elevated to receivers coach.
Scott: I knew from being around the coaching profession that this was my shot. You've got to work hard, but you've also got to get lucky. You've got to be at the right place at the right time. I was smart enough to know this was my shot, and my shot was with coach Swinney to get the head job.
I went home that first night that coach Swinney was named the interim coach, and across the ticker on ESPN was the stat that zero of the last 29 interim head coaches got the head coaching position. So, I remember looking at that and going, 'O.K., maybe we can make it one out of 30.' We had six games left in that season. At a minimum, we would have to go 4–2 to have a legitimate shot. And we'd have to beat South Carolina as one of the four. There were rumors about everybody they were flying in and interviewing.
Our first game with coach Swinney as head coach, we played Georgia Tech. It was a real emotional game, and we lost at home. The very next week, we were going to play at Boston College. I knew this was the week. You're not going to get the job if you win this week, but you're probably going to lose the job if you start out 0–2 and still have to go to Florida State and play South Carolina at home. All right, this is it.
I was in the box in the game. It was back and forth. They took the lead in the fourth quarter. It's one of those five-minute timeouts. I'm sitting up there in the box thinking the next few minutes of this game are probably going to determine the next 10 or 15 years of my career. Fortunately for us, we had somebody named C.J. Spiller. They kicked the ball off to C.J., and he took it back 64 yards. Four plays later, we scored and won the game. We knew after that we had a shot.
Lesson No. 8: It's O.K. to admit what you don't know.
Elliott spent two years at South Carolina State before moving to become the receivers coach at Furman. He had just survived a staff firing there in early 2011 when he got an intriguing call from Swinney.
Elliott: He called about two weeks [after the firing] to come coach the running backs. We had talked [through the years]. I'd always call him for advice, and he had called me about some other opportunities. I always bounced ideas off him. But I didn't think I was going to have a shot this go-around because it was a running back job. I'm coming from Furman, and all I've ever coached is wideouts. I played wideout. I don't know anything about running backs.
The key is being humble and understanding that you've got a lot to learn. Reach out to the people who are willing to share their knowledge. Just absorb as much as you can. Be honest with your players. The first conversation with [star tailback] Andre Ellington was, "Hey, dude. We're from the same hometown, so I know who you are. But I'm going to be honest. I've coached wideouts. Teach me. I want you to teach me how to be a running backs coach. I've met with [Alabama running backs coach] Burton Burns. I've met with [former Mississippi State head coach and then-NFL assistant] Sylvester Croom. I've gotten their drills and their information. But I want you to teach me how to feel the position." It's just being humble and understanding that you've got to connect with your kids. You've got to learn. You've got to ask the questions. You've got to study. You've got to prepare yourself.
Lesson No. 9: Pay attention when your boss drops hints.
Swinney began preparing Scott and Elliott to run the offense three years ago.
Scott: Chad [Morris] comes in and installs this offense, and right out of the gate we start 8–0 [in 2011]. We win the ACC for the first time in 20 years. Chad's name was already at that point getting floated around as a potential head coach candidate. We knew early on that it was just a matter of time. He was going to leave and become a head coach. So, as a young coach, you want to learn as much as you possibly can about the offense. Each year, Tony and I would meet with coach Swinney to go through our review. He never would tell us, "This is what I'm going to do one day," but he would always encourage us to be sure that we were learning this offense as well as we possibly could. Because one day when coach Morris got the opportunity to be a head coach, we were going to run this offense at Clemson.
We knew what he was saying there. I also give coach Morris a lot of credit, because each year he gave Tony and myself more responsibility in the offense. He gave me a lot of responsibility in the passing game. Tony had a lot of responsibility in the running game and blitz pickup. In Chad's way, each year he felt more comfortable, he was also preparing Tony and I for that opportunity. It was a pretty seamless transition when [Morris left for SMU], but we really did not know that was the route coach Swinney was going to go until the day Chad left. But we were prepared.
It's like the same thing you tell your backup quarterback. You'd better be preparing for your opportunity, because when it comes, if you're not prepared, you're not going to be successful.
Lesson No. 10: Listen to daddy.
Elliott: There's a lot that I've got to learn at this position. I guess that's how it happens for me—just get dropped in and go figure it out. Just survive and adapt. Going back to your initial question about what advice I would give my sons, No. 1, life is precious. So find the positive in everything. Don't focus on the negative. See every situation as an opportunity to learn and to grow. Don't focus on anybody else's hand. You play the cards you were dealt.