Three years after graduating from Clemson, Tony Elliott found himself stuck in an ill-fitting job of his dreams.
Employed by Michelin at its nearby plant in Sandy Springs, SC, Elliott had everything he had always dreamed of: a well-paying job, a promising career, responsibility and status.
He had come a long way from a troubled, tragedy-marred childhood, had proved himself as a college football player at the highest level, and had graduated in a difficult field of study.
In every way, he had defied the odds and had 'made it.'
And he was dreadfully unhappy.
“If you know my background and history, losing my mom and being raised by other people in my family, all I ever wanted to do was wear a tie to work,” Elliott said on the day he was introduced as Clemson's new running backs coach. “I felt like if I could wear a tie to work, that would mean that I'm successful and was doing something positive with my life, and I would be happy and would be making a lot of money.
“I thought that was it. I was going to be an engineer and travel the world, make a lot of connections and maybe own my own business someday. But the monotony of doing the same thing every day and not being happy with it – that just turned me around.”
Elliott said he considers himself a “people person,” but in his job as a plant engineer and efficiency analyst, his interactions with people took on what, to him, was a disagreeable dynamic.
“My job was basically watching people work – documenting what they do all day, and then going back and saying 'you can cut this out or change this, or actually you could cut his job and put it here or do this differently,'” he explained. “It was just tough dealing with folks in that way - especially since a lot of the people working there at the Michelin plant had helped build that facility.
“Then you go back to your cubical and sit in front of a computer all day. There just wasn't the kind of people interaction that I wanted. The position I was in just didn't fit my personality. I love being with people and working with people, but I didn't like being the guy who had to go tell people 'your job is being cut out.'”
Elliott tried to find outlets for his frustration. He worked out, but soon tired of the routine. He was looking for something more, but wasn't quite sure what it was.
His career path began to change without him even realizing it.
As a former Clemson football player, he was considered an 'in' for some co-workers interested in watching the Tigers practice.
“People at Michelin would want to come watch practice, and they saw me as a resource who could get them in,” Elliott explained. “So I would be like a chaperone. You don't really realize until you're out in the community how many people love Clemson football – not just love it, but live and die with it. I was amazed to see people who would plan their whole yearly budgets around Clemson football. It's that big.”
Being back on campus gave Elliott the first spark of an idea: maybe he'd try his hand at coaching.
So he volunteered one spring at Easley High School, and suddenly found himself revitalized.
“To be honest with you, I never thought about coaching when I was in school,” Elliott said. “But what I discovered was that working with young people was what sparked a fire in me. And that's why I'm doing what I'm doing...
“After spending that spring coaching at Easley, I knew I had to make a decision. If I was going to try to get into it, I felt like I'd have to become a GA (graduate assistant coach). So I came back here and interviewed with Rob Spence and talked to Coach (Tommy) Bowden about a spot. It didn't work out here, but about two days later I got a call to come down to South Carolina State and interview for the wide receivers job.”
When the door opened, Elliott had no hesitation.
He spent two years on SC State's staff, and then was hired by Bobby Lamb to coach Furman's wide receivers. After Lamb resigned last fall, Elliott stayed on and was eventually retained by new Paladins coach Bruce Fowler, who named him recruiting coordinator.
Then, unexpectedly, Dabo Swinney called.
“It's just awesome for me to be wearing the orange again,” said Elliott. “It's humbling and it's a blessing. The way I look at it, I've accomplished a huge dream at the age of 31. A lot of people go their whole lives and don't accomplish what I've been blessed with. I was able to play football at the BCS level, and I have an opportunity to coach football at the BCS level, and now I'm back home at Clemson. It's just an awesome feeling.”
Elliott says he's thankful for the chance to live his dream.
“I thought I knew what I wanted, but I came to realize that there's more to life than making money,” he said. “I wanted to be passionate about what I do, and happy to get up in the morning. If I wasn't happy, I realized that I wasn't going to be able to impact people the way I know the Lord wants me to...
“I've been tremendously blessed. I understand that my journey is different from a lot of folks' - I'm humbled by that.”