By Jeff Greenberg
Like many aspects of life, in order to be successful in the game of football you have to have a plan. You have to assess what you have on your own team. You have to assess what your opponent has on their team. Then you have to formulate a game plan that maximizes your team’s strengths and which of those strengths give you an advantage over your opponent. Without a plan it is almost impossible to win a football game. So it should come as no surprise that football coaches are planners. They plan every aspect of every possible factor that could influence their program. From what they do in practice every day to what kind of food their players are eating, no stone is left unturned. Does that dedication to planning apply to how they grow and develop their careers? Absolutely. But what if they’re thrown a curve ball? What if how they envisioned their plan playing out gets turned upside down? It happens all the time and one person that knows this as well as anybody is Georgia State Head Coach, Shawn Elliott.
Coach Elliott began his coaching career at Appalachian State University a couple of years after his playing days in Boone were over. He spent thirteen years coaching at his alma mater before heading to the University of South Carolina to work on Steve Spurrier’s staff.
From day one of his career, Coach Elliott always set his sights on becoming a head coach. He spent every moment and opportunity he had in coaching to learn what it took to become a head coach and more importantly, what it took to be a successful head coach. This is where that football coach “planning gene” took root with him. One of the things he learned along the way is to always be prepared when your next opportunity presents itself. He knew the guys he would call to join his staff if he ever got the call to be a head coach. He knew the type of program he wanted to build based on his vision and beliefs. He was ready.
What he may not have been ready for was the timing and circumstances of how he became a head coach when he was at South Carolina. To be honest, who would have been ready in that situation?
In the middle of the 2015 season, Steve Spurrier announced he was retiring immediately, right then and there. Not at the end of the season, but halfway through the season. Coach Elliott wanted to be a head coach, but he never could have prepared for the moment when the reigns of an SEC football program were handed to him midway through a season. He did what he knew how to do; he went to work. That work paid off as roughly a year later he was offered his first official head coaching job at Georgia State University.
We caught up with Coach Elliott this spring as he began his second spring practice season in Atlanta after completing his first full year as the Panthers’ head coach.
- At what point in your life did you know that coaching was the path for you? – “Honestly, probably from the moment I started playing sports. What I mean is, once I started playing sports I knew I wanted my life to be in sports forever. Well, you know in your heart of hearts you can’t play the game forever, so the next best thing that could keep you in the game is coaching. I always loved the engagement of just being around a team and the work and preparation a group of people put into this game to be successful. I don’t care if it was conditioning work, film work or field work, I loved it all. The comradery you build in that process is just so unique and unmatched anywhere else in my mind. So again, I think from the moment I was on my first team as a kid, I knew there was nothing better in life than to be part of a team. Coaching is what has allowed me to stay on a team so many years later.”
- Who gave you the most important advice on how to work to become a head coach and what was that advice? – “Early on I think Jerry Moore was the mentor who taught me to do more than what was expected of you. He taught me that the guys that you didn’t have to ask things for were the ones that rose to the top. They were self-starters who took it upon themselves to get things done and more importantly, help everybody else get things done too. It didn’t matter whether they were coming up with a new idea for a game plan or just hanging up pictures on a wall to make the football offices look better. They are the guys that are going somewhere. Those were the guys that people would take notice of because their work ethic and drive would stand out from the rest of the crowd.”
- One day you were sitting there as an assistant coach at The University of South Carolina. The next day Steve Spurrier announces that he’s retiring and you’re now the Interim Head Coach. What was going through your mind that night? – “Wow, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was a little crazy at first. Here I was, having been in Columbia for six years at that point, and we get word that we’re going to meet with Coach Spurrier. The word was that he was going to retire and they would be naming an interim coach in the process. I remember Ray Tanner, the Athletics Director, said he was going to sit down with the assistant coaches and then pick an interim head coach. I had been preparing to be a head coach since the moment I started my coaching career. That was my goal and I wanted to do things to put myself in position to be a head coach at some point. When he entered my office that evening I knew I was the man for the job. I wanted the job and I was going to do everything in my power to be successful at it. But it was crazy because of everything else going on around the situation. I was about to take over an SEC football program at a difficult time and right in the middle of the season. You couldn’t call a timeout and take your time getting all of the pieces put together. The season was moving on and we had to move on with it. There was a ton of uncertainty in it for everybody involved. You’re thinking to yourself, “Ok, our head coach just retired. Rarely do they hire the interim coach at this level. Your job is at stake and you know your life is about to go through a major change in the next six to seven weeks when the season ends.” So what do you do? Luckily, I didn’t have much time to ponder that point because we had to get our players on board and ready for the next game. A lot of things were going through my mind that evening and my wife’s mind as well. It’s something that is hard to describe unless you’ve been in that position.”
- You said you had been preparing your whole career for the moment when you would become a head coach, but it sounds like nobody is really prepared for it to happen like it did for you at South Carolina? – “No, that is correct. I don’t know how you would be prepared for that moment. You’re never thinking about becoming an interim coach, especially with six to seven games left in the season. You have a matter of hours to formulate a plan and how to rally everybody in that building around that plan in order to try and right the ship. It was hard and I can’t really think of another scenario that could prepare you for that. In the end, it’s one of those moments where you just have to trust your gut and your instincts, because given that short amount of reaction time; it’s all you have to fall back on.”
- What were the most important things you took away from watching Coach Spurrier operate as a head coach? – “First of all, he was unbelievable head coach to work for as an assistant coach. How he treated his assistants and their families was something I always took note of with him. Time in football and time away from football with your families were equally important to him. He wanted you to enjoy the game and enjoy coaching the game. Don’t let the game overwhelm you. That was a key learning I took away from my time with Coach Spurrier. He was as great a competitor as any I’ve ever been around, but he enjoyed himself every step of the way. How he balanced that competitiveness and enjoyment of the job is instrumental in how I handle my staff now at Georgia State.”
- You mentioned your wife earlier when discussing being handed the interim job at South Carolina. What was it like for you to tell your wife you were the new head coach at Georgia State? – “You know what, it was really special. She has always known what my goals were as a coach and wanting to be an FBS head coach and run my own program. We had our family goals and professional goals and that was my professional goal. I remember coming in to Atlanta to meet with President Becker and our Athletics Director, Charlie Cobb, and leaving that meeting thinking I had a great chance of getting this job. The next morning I was at the airport and I got a phone call and it was Charlie Cobb. He got on the phone and said, “Let’s do this.” It’s one of those moments where you get some butterflies in your stomach and wonder if it’s real. I hung up with him and immediately called my wife. It was somewhat bittersweet from a family perspective because we spent so many great years in Columbia. Our children had grown up only knowing the city and people around us in that city. But what a great moment when I got to tell her we got the job. And I mean it when I say “we” got the job. The great coaches will tell you it takes a special woman to be married to a coach. My wife is a special woman and she was every bit as important as anything else in me getting a head coaching position. We put a lot of hard work into coaching so it wasn’t just me getting the job. We got the job.”
- Was it one of those moments where you’ll always remember where in the airport you were standing when you got the call? – “Oh yeah. I was getting on the train at the airport that takes you to the terminal and my phone rang. When I saw who it was I quick stepped back off of the train to take it. Once I got the word that I was the new head coach at Georgia State I realized I couldn’t get on the train at that moment. I needed to make a few phone calls(laughing.) The first one being to my wife, as we discussed earlier.”
- Every head coach has that introductory press conference where the president and the athletics director are explaining why they hired the man they did for the job. What was going through your mind as they were speaking about you? – “I was thinking of several things to be honest. I know so many people try to go out there and win the press conference by having this really nice, prepared speech all written out, and that’s fine for some people. If you know me then you know that’s just not who I am. I kind of bring it from the hip and just say what’s on my mind. I remember my agent telling me to write out a speech. I told him, “Man, I haven’t written a speech in my entire life. I’m not going to start now. I know what I want to say.” I think as long as you’re comfortable and confident in your own shoes, then you’ll be ok. I wanted to focus on recognizing the people that got me there and my family. Then I wanted to let the players and the fans of our university know what kind of program I envisioned creating here. If I could do those two things then I would be happy with that moment. It was just an incredible feeling to be in that moment and have this opportunity.”
- When you think back to when you were an assistant and you were dreaming of becoming a head coach one day; how would you have finished this sentence, “When I get my own program the first thing I’m going to do is…”? – “I think setting the tone for the program based on my personality and who I am was the first thing I wanted to get done. Whether it was socially, spiritually, academically or anything else, I wanted to set the tone needed to be successful. It started with those first interactions with the players. My goal to was to let them know who I was as a coach and who I was as a man. Just be who I am. That’s how I would put my stamp on this program. I wanted people to know what we would be about as a program.”
- Did you already have a staff in mind or a list of guys you knew you were going to call when you got the job? – “Absolutely. As you prepare to be a head coach you have to have that list at all times. It’s a list of guys you respect and know how they operate. You know their work ethic and you know how they’ll fit into what you want in a program. I had the names down of who I wanted to contact and I was very fortunate to get almost every single guy I wanted on my staff.”
- What’s the hardest part, looking back now after your first season as the head coach at Georgia State, for fans to understand about what it’s like to be a head coach in college football? – “That’s a great question. And I say that because I’ve been fortunate enough not to have come across any situations yet here that have been really hard. That doesn’t mean we haven’t had some adversity, but I guess I meant that we haven’t encountered anything yet that we weren’t prepared to handle. Honestly, I think the one thing fans don’t always understand is just how hard it has become to win games in college football. Winning is the hardest part of this job. You can’t take it for granted. Every win entails so many moving parts coming together for one goal and one purpose. Not everybody wants the responsibility and accountability it takes to lead a program week in and week out. This job isn’t for everybody.”
- If you could go back, knowing what you know now, and talk to your younger self, what would you tell him to be better prepared to become a head coach? – “You know what, I’ve been asked that question before and I don’t have an answer yet. That’s not me being arrogant and me thinking I know everything. It’s more about being prepared for the job and using those years as an assistant to learn as much as I could and observe as much as I could from the guys in that position. So far, nothing has really surprised me or overwhelmed me to this point. That doesn’t mean we’ve done everything right since we’ve been here, but I’m not big on second-guessing yourself. We’re trying to stick to the plan we believe in and we believe that plan is the right way to do this job.”
- What are you better at now as a head coach than you were when you got the interim job at South Carolina? – “I think with experience you just learn how to better handle your coaching staff. I don’t mean from a critiquing point-of-view. I mean more in how you communicate with your staff in different situations. You’ve got to be able to be just as effective in communicating with them when things don’t go well as you are when things are going great. You have to be able to reach them and be an effective leader. Let’s say we go out and we’re not successful. Do you come in and raise hell the whole time and act like it’s 4th-and-1 all day long? Or do you go in there and take a step back and look at the situation as a group and analyze what went wrong? I try to treat every day the same. It’s a phenomenal day and it’s the greatest day we have. Let’s act that way. Our approach has to be consistent and that all starts with how I communicate with my staff because in the end, that’s what will affect how we communicate and connect with our players.”
- Now that you have a season under your belt and the success of a winning season and a bowl win, what’s it like on the recruiting trail this spring compared to last spring? – “It’s definitely been a different experience for us this year. When we walk into schools and into homes they see our logo and they know who we are and where we’re from. They understand the name, Georgia State Football, and that you won your bowl game. It gets your program’s name out there and now the prospects are familiar with you. Before, we were introducing them to Georgia State. Now there is some brand-recognition. I’m traveling to more areas with a wider footprint that recognize us when we walk through the door. Getting that first bowl victory was a signature win and it’s paying off for us on the recruiting trail.”
- There are only 130 head coaching jobs at the FBS level. That puts you in high demand at the coaching convention and at clinics. What is the first thing you would advise to a young assistant or a graduate assistant who wants to become a head coach? – “I would tell them to listen as much as they can. Listen more than you talk. There are guys that think they know everything and stop listening. Don’t be that guy. Be the guy that listens to every coach they work with and interact with along the way. Pick something up from every coach they know. Ask them questions about things outside of the X’s and O’s. Ask them about communicating with a staff compared to communicating with players. Ask them about the way they prepare for a practice or prepare for a meeting. Ask them how they balance the job with their family life. The X’s and O’s are easy. There are a ton of coaches who are great at that part. What separates you from others is how you manage and execute the other parts of this job. Take all of those questions and answers and they will add up to a foundational knowledge base you can build from to get that head coaching job.”
- Speaking of family, how have you as a family managed that work/life balance during your first year as a head coach? – “My family is the most important thing in my life. They are numero uno for me. We make time. That time together is very important to us. It doesn’t matter what day of the week of the reason, that time is precious. I get my job done, but you can’t take away from your family to get that job done. Working 24 hours a day isn’t going to make you more successful. Being effective when you work is what makes you successful, and I believe having a balance in your life makes you more successful. I think all successful men have a solid family behind them. It’s a crucial part of the puzzle. You treat them like gold. I think we’ve really enjoyed our first season here as a family.”
- What do you think their favorite part has been about you being a head coach? – “I know my kids love running around during the pregame. Getting to ride the buses to the stadium and throw around the football on the field is awesome for them. All of that good stuff that you see them enjoying is fun to watch. I love it. For our first game our kids ran out of the tunnel with the team. What an awesome experience for all of us. Those are things that you will never forget and I get a lot of joy out of watching them experience it all. I think they’ll always remember it too.”
- What’s your favorite part of the job? – “The players and the coaches. I love interacting with them every day. The way our building is set up I can always know who is around and I just love the comradery of it all. The conversations and the moments behind the scenes are the ones you take with you. Those are the times that remind you why you love coaching. It’s the relationships. They say you never work a day in your life if you love what you do, and I agree with that. The players and the coaches on my staff are what make me love this job the way that I do.”
- Is there anything you think you’ll do differently in year two as a head coach than you did in year one? – “Hopefully we will win a little bit more(laughing). I believe in my guys and I believe in our plan. If we stay the course I think we will win more.”