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Sometimes, It's Bigger Than Ball

One big similarity is keeping Syracuse and Virginia connected at the hip.

April 4th, 1968

A date that will always live in infamy. For many black men in America, infamy is our only chance at notoriety. It is an ever-lurking shadow, one deeply embedded and impossible to get rid of, wondering if you will be accepted into spaces you know you are qualified to be in, constantly looking over your shoulder and making sure that the boogeyman has not got you yet. right on your heels. As a black man growing up in the Deep South, that date was supposed to represent a climax of black American culture -- purpose, power, authority, and prestige.

And yet, like too many chances and opportunities for black men in this country, it was snatched away, snatched away at the hands of a cowardice assassin, one who was potentially scared of the dream Dr. Martin Luther King had, a dream that rang loud and clear on that August day in Washington in 1963, a dream that countless amounts of black people laid their hopes and dreams on — and a dream that persisted and survived, even as he laid half-conscious and bloody on a 2nd-floor balcony, moments before his life ended, less than 15-minute drive away from my childhood home, in Memphis, Tennessee.

February 13th, 1919

For UVA head coach Tony Elliot, one of only 14 black head coaches at the FBS level, he’s a walking representation of Dr. King's dreams and aspirations. However, for all of Dr. King’s great accolades, he did not know the difference between press man coverage from Cover 4. He was not able to diagnose zone blocking schemes in the run game, and he definitely did not have the offensive acumen to understand the use of RPOs. A gold standard was desperately needed for black professional sports, one that could stand up against the prestige and immense legacy of men like Bear Bryant. Insert Grambling State mastermind Eddie Robinson.

Born to humble beginnings, son of a sharecropper and a house worker, nobody could have guessed when Eddie Gay Robinson Sr. came into the world that day in February 1919, that he would be the most influential black sports figure this side of Michael Jordan. And yet, over a century after that fateful Thursday afternoon in tiny Jackson, Louisiana, and even decades after his passing in 2007, Robinson’s impact and success at the HBCU and FCS levels opened the door for someone like UVA head football coach Tony Elliot to walk into the Dome as one of the two black coaches in the matchup, and one of the 14 black head coaches at the FBS level. Many fans and experts on both sides won’t even bat an eye. But to the ones that look like me, that’s a jarring sight, one that sadly is far too rare, and it forces you to think about the role of HBCU football and how former legends like Deion Sanders (Jackson State), Eddie George (Tennessee State), and Hue Jackson (Grambling State) are ushering in a new wave of black men at the helm.

Elliot’s coaching journey began at an HBCU, one where he has family roots and a deep understanding of the tradition and culture - South Carolina State, located in tiny Orangeburg, SC, a town of less than 12,000 and not even an hour drive from the only USC that matters in the South Carolina, in Columbia, the state’s resident SEC program. However, as Coach Elliot explained it, the Bulldogs, not the Gamecocks, were the main attraction growing up for him in SC:

“Growing up in South Carolina and living with my aunt, she attended South Carolina State University, so I was always aware of the pride that she had in being a Bulldog, and, truth be told, Coach Pough was the only one that would give me a shot right out the gate, transitioning from engineering into coaching.” said Elliot, who was wide receivers coach at South Carolina State from 2006-2008. “I had a great experience down at South Carolina State working for Coach Pough, and I still recall on experiences and lessons learned during my two years on staff there, and it’s just good to see that those institutions [HBCU’s] are being recognized for the quality of football, the quality of education, and the quality of young men that they’re developing.”

Elliot describes his childhood as less than ideal and said that he essentially found a safe haven on the sports field as a youth, a true case for young men raised in large metropolitan areas, like Elliot was in Los Angeles, places where crime and poverty can be commonplace, and these problems can be exasperated within black communities. Elliot did not even plan to coach after his playing days, saying that he had his future as an engineer all figured out. However, as he put it, a divine intervention of sorts led him to the sidelines, so he takes his role as a leader of young men deathly serious.

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“I just try to use all of my experiences and the platform of football to teach young men that, anything that they want to accomplish in life, they can do it, if they have a vision for it, they believe in it, they believe in themselves, and they’re willing to sacrifice and put in the work," Elliot said. "So, you know, I don’t walk around every day saying I’m a father figure, but I know the responsibility, I fully understand the responsibility that I have of being in the position I am, and I don’t take that lightly. When I have opportunities, I try to lead from that perspective, as a father would instruct his son, I think that any coach that goes into a home and recruits, they tell their parents they want their son to come to play for them and they’re gonna treat them like their own, but I take that to heart. I have my boys around practice all the time, reminding me of the commitment it takes to effectively lead a program, especially when you're developing 18 to 22-year old young men.” 

Ultimately, Coach Elliot understands that he is influential and ground-breaking as a black head coach in the ACC. However, he knows that no matter if he was black, white, brown, green, or even polka-dot pattern, his main job is to win games and compete at a high level. We are in somewhat of a golden era of black head coaches at this level, with men like James Franklin, David Shaw, and Marcus Freeman (not off to the best start, buddy) being the head men for historic and traditional powerhouses and finding mostly success doing so. With the pedigree that Elliot comes in with, as the offensive mastermind behind the Clemson offense from 2015-2021, he knows that nothing makes change and turns heads like ending up on the right side of the scoreboard. Despite it being a special moment for two professional black men, he’s focused on one thing and one thing squarely:

“You know, I don’t walk around every day thinking about, or looking into, being one of 14," Elliot said. "Now, there’s certain instances where it’s brought to my attention, but first and foremost , I just want to be a good football coach, and I want to be a good man and mentor to these young men. I’m fully aware of the responsibility that comes with the position that I’m in, both at my job physically, and also for other coaches that look like me, and the biggest thing, I just want to see quality coaches be given opportunities to lead programs, because what they’re doing is far beyond just coaching football. They have an opportunity to reach a target audience of 125 very capable young men that can go into society and really affect change. So, when I think about this weekend and getting ready to play Coach Babers, you’re gonna see two of the 14 play, it’ll cross my mind for a few moments, then we’ll jump into the game, and after the game, I have to move forward and lead the University of Virginia.”

On paper, this game is no more than a mid-level ACC game, and that may be the most accurate way to describe it. Way more eyeballs will be paid attention to whether or not Sean Tucker can get back on track with a 100-yard game, or if Brennan Armstrong can come into the Dome and play spoiler against his former coaches than will be paid to anything that Babers or Elliot does on Friday. And yet, at the end of the night, two black head coaches men will meet at the 50-yard line, exchange handshakes and hugs, and one of those black men will be able to raise his hands as a victor.

That, within itself, is victory enough for me.