Elliott won’t sacrifice his core culture as he tries to build a foundation at Virginia

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Tony Elliott (Photo: Virginianewstime.com)

Tony Elliott had seen enough. His football team kept repeating bad habits, was whistled for dumb penalties, 15-yard personal fouls, trash talking, pushing Duke players after the play.

Not only had the whistle blown, but the Virginia coach blew his top after the mistakes continued to mount in Saturday night’s 38-17 loss at Duke. Elliott called the entire team over and unloaded on them.

“I was a little bit embarrassed with my reaction to a couple of things during the game just because I lost my composure a little bit,” Elliott said this week. “I apologized to the staff and to the players.”

Perhaps it was the frustration of the season — back-to-back losses for the first time since his first year as an assistant coach at Clemson — all boiling over. Elliott mentioned building a culture here for the long haul, no fighting in practice, no dumb penalties in games, core values that he will not sacrifice in order to win games.

“There’s a difference between having a good team and building a program,” Elliott said. “Good teams, they may be good for one year. Good programs, they sustain success over the long haul.”

Elliott compared instilling his philosophies, his methods, his system to teaching an old dog new tricks. Thus far, the old dog is slow to catch on, resulting in a 2-3 record, 0-2 in the ACC with a desperate Louisville (2-3) coming to town for Saturday’s noon homecoming (ACC Network).

Presently, a great portion of the fan base views the rocky start as a mess. The support has been lukewarm with crowds announced by the school as more than 40,000, but have been far less. Students leave at halftime and don’t return.

Alumni can’t understand how a team that has been bowl-eligible for five-straight years and boasted one of the nation’s leading returning passers and receiving corps could be so inept offensively.

Consider that last year’s UVA offense finished third in the nation in total offense (515.8 yards per game) and No. 21 in scoring offense (34.6 points per game) out of 131 FBS programs. Presently, the Cavaliers are No. 99 in total offense (364.4) and No. 118 in scoring (18.0 points per game).

Armstrong’s numbers are way off as well. He’s ranked No. 121 nationally in passing efficiency and No. 73 in passing yards, a stark contrast to a season ago.

If you’ve regularly read this column, you’ve heard Elliott and offensive coordinator Des Kitchings talk about the change in offensive philosophy, a completely different approach than that of former coordinator Robert Anae. Elliott’s philosophy is based on the rhythm passing game.

Anae’s “Air Raid” principles were based on quarterbacks reading the defense quickly and getting the ball to athletic receivers before the defense could react. Elliott’s system is more about calibrating routes and getting the ball out at precise times.

Armstrong and his receivers have struggled to make the adjustment, although Elliott said he has seen signs of improvement. Those improvements have not led to point production, and that has brought a lot of frustration to those who festoon themselves in orange and blue.

“You’ve got to keep watering, believing and trusting that at one point it’s going to click and you’re going to see the growth,” Elliott said.

What does this mean in the long run of this season as opposed to the long run for the program? Louisville will represent the midway point of the 2022 season and a loss would be devastating for the Cavaliers, who would drop to 2-4 overall and 0-3 in the ACC against a very mediocre Cardinals team. Just in order to become bowl eligible, UVA would have to win half its remaining six games against the meat of its schedule.

Is it more important to Elliott to establish his culture and philosophy, regardless of the outcome of this season’s win-loss record, as opposed to building for the future? Elliott again, used the old dog, new tricks analogy.

“They are going to resist at times because they’ve had success doing it one way,” the coach explained. “But this is a new regime, this is a new direction going forward.

“They’ve had success doing it their way. I acknowledge that, I respect that. But I also have had success coming from where I’m coming from, the way I was trained, what it took from a cultural standpoint to be successful there [at Clemson].”

For Elliott, it’s all about establishing a strong foundation for Virginia’s football future.

“I can take the approach, ‘Hey, you have a good team,’ but then I’m starting over year after year and I don’t establish the foundation of the program,” Elliott said. “For me, the foundation of the program is, one, having appreciation for your opportunity to play. When you take the field, right, for pregame warmups, with a sense of urgency and appreciation to play. You don’t walk onto the field, right?”

The coach was disturbed that some players casually walked onto the field at Duke, a definite no-no in his culture. That’s why Elliott said there were too many “individuals” on the team at this point, which goes against the all-in, team aspect of the sport.

Virginia is also the most penalized team in the ACC, and some of those penalties caused Elliott to boil over emotionally during the Duke game. He has found that changing the mentality of this team to be frustrating as well.

“The biggest challenge is for me to keep my composure, right?” Elliott said. “I pride myself on trying to be a calm guy. The cultural piece, it’s finding the right way to communicate to these guys to get them to believe and buy in.

“I was a little bit embarrassed with my reaction to a couple things during the game, just because I lost my composure a little bit. I apologized to the staff and to the players, but I saw things that, from a cultural standpoint, I just did not like, that’s not going to be who we are as a program. I just believe that my job at that time is to try and address those things.”

Virginia fans believed that the first half of the schedule was the easiest part, with some potential wins coming up against Louisville and at Georgia Tech (Oct. 20, a Thursday), but Elliott doesn’t look at the schedule the same way fans do.

Is it important to get some wins, build some momentum for the second half of the season, which should be more challenging?

“I think it’s important, but I don’t want to jeopardize building a program for those wins because those wins will be short-lived, right?” Elliott said. “Trust me, I want to win every game. I’m not looking at the schedule, saying, ‘Okay, these are the winnable games.’ Right now I’m trying to figure out schematically what we need to do as a staff to be successful against Louisville.”

Elliott said he told his players that right now, they are not a team but rather a group of individuals, and that’s why they’re not making the plays they are supposed to.

“When we heal as a team, this team can be special,” Elliott said. “It’s got everything that it needs to be competitive in every single game thay it plays with a chance to win.”

Virginia is a 2.5-point underdog to Louisville, according to Vegas Insider.