Listen, people, and you will hear a few tectonic truths of football and the coaching thereof.
Right here at Georgia State, of all places, where the game has resided in relative seclusion throughout its brief existence.
“To use your strength and your abilities to move a man against his will is a pretty special thing. That’s why I played (football). That’s why I continue to coach it the way I’ve coached it.”
That’s but one thought emerging from the dialogues of Shawn Elliott, football fundamentalist. For being fairly new at this head coaching thing, he still has managed a firm grasp on the language of intense, unblinking leadership. He’ll speak in football absolutes as well as any 20-year head coach out there.
Elliott has emerged from the trenches to take over coaching the GSU Panthers at the dawn of their relocation to a new stadium. It’s his turn now to sink his spurs into the flanks of a program that hasn’t yet been able to keep pace with its own ambitions.
An offensive line coach for the bulk of his career, he has not followed a well-worn path to his first permanent head coaching job. “You typically see those guys stay in the background – they coach the O line for a lot of years and end up retiring,” Elliott said. “It is something I always wanted to do, I wanted to be a head football coach. I wanted to be able to touch the defensive side of the game, to be in contact with the tight ends, the O line, the running backs, our coaches.”
Panthers Athletic Director Charlie Cobb became acquainted with this fiery fellow when coach and administrator were both at Appalachian State. It was hard not to pay some attention to Elliott, whose reputation as an emotional defensive lineman at App State was further enhanced by his coaching habit of smashing into his players, pinballing from one to another, as a pregame motivational ritual.
“Someone once said I played in control of being out of control. That’s probably the way I coach,” Elliott said.
“If our kids will play with focus and determination and toughness that he has, we’re going to win a lot of football games,” Cobb said.
Granted, subtlety is not in his playbook, and never has been through 13 seasons in Boone, N.C. and another seven at South Carolina, which included a six-game stint as interim head coach in 2015 when Steve Spurrier took his visor and went home.
The full-contact psych-up routine has tended to lessen through the years, and may continue to fall off now that Elliott wears the title of head coach. But that was, in its day, some epic moshing before kickoff.
“At South Carolina it was just a little bumping and shoving. At App State we were fighting. It became a sight to see. There were days I’d wake up and my whole left side of my body would be bruised up. It was fun. As you get older you can’t do it as much,” Elliott said.
That leads to another basic of Elliott’s Coaching Philosophy 101:
“Those guys (players) got to see that you want it as badly as they want it,” Elliott said. “Everybody’s got a different way they coach. I’m not the stoic guy who stands on the sideline. As soon as I walk on the field, I break into a sweat. My heart’s racing. I’m ready to go.”
He is the Panthers third head coach in just their eight years of existence. And each step of the way from Bill Curry to Trent Miles and now to the 44-year-old Elliott, they have gone younger. And younger means being able to get more physically involved, more eye-to-eye with players, on the practice field.
Thus, when the team went on a recent conditioning run at Stone Mountain, Elliott and his coaches joined them. During spring practice, the head coach probably could have used a helmet as well as a whistle.
That approach certainly hastens the getting-to-know-you part of a coaching change. “I love the intensity,” GSU receiver Penny Hart said. “It’s almost like he’s out there going to play the game with you and that’s what you want to feel as a player. You want to feel like they’re out there with you every step of the way.”
Twenty years at two addresses – this guy was no job-hopper. The son of a South Carolina state trooper, the product of the small-town south (Camden, S.C.), Elliott had the kind of upbringing that led to an understanding with stability. He was never that coach always angling for a better position, with one foot in the present and the other pointed off toward the next job interview. His wife and two children would not be required to keep their bags packed.
The fact that South Carolina turned to Elliott when Spurrier suddenly quit two seasons ago was another nod to his steadiness. The Gamecocks finished 1-5 under Elliott, the five losses by an average of seven points, including a five-point loss to top-ranked Clemson.
For years, Cobb had Elliott’s name in his mental Rolodex of possible head coaches. “I always thought somewhere along the line he was going to make a great head coach because he has that unquantifiable ‘It Factor.’ He resonates enthusiasm. He resonates tenacity. He resonates being genuine,” the AD said.
When the two began talking about the Georgia State job, Elliott had to decide whether making the move from the SEC for a head-coaching job at a Sun Belt program still seeking an identity even in its own neighborhood was the right play.
Some deciding factors: His comfort level with Cobb. The ability to live and recruit in Atlanta. The challenge of trying to take a program into unexplored territory.
Ask Elliott what he, in turn, will pitch to a recruit in order to sell him on the idea of Georgia State, and be prepared to receive another electric jolt of insight.
“You have the ability to do a lot of firsts here. I use the term founding father. Just think how exciting it’s going to be to be that young man who has won that first bowl game for Georgia State or won that first Sun Belt championship. To be the first to do something is very special,” he said.
“So many times you go to places that have been built over time and it just kind of runs on its own. But here it’s a chance to build it – not from scratch – but to come to a program and say I can be remembered.”
And now, to move a populace to rally around his team – almost against its will – that will be the sternest test of the Elliott approach to life and football.