Fans of Clemson Tigers football may recognize Tony Elliott. You’ll find him alongside Dabo Swinney on Saturdays in the fall, figuring out how to penetrate defenses and move the ball across the goal line.
Elliott serves as co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach, but his connection to the university runs all the way back to his days as a player and student in the College of Engineering and Science.
While playing wide receiver for the Tigers, Elliott managed a rare feat. He excelled in one of higher education’s most demanding sports and one of its most rigorous academic programs.
Elliott graduated with a degree in industrial engineering in 2002 with a team-high 3.55 GPA. He lettered four times, finishing with 34 receptions for 455 yards and two scores. A survey of Clemson players conducted by the Anderson Independent Mail in his senior year found that he was the team’s “most respected player.”
After graduation, Elliott worked for Michelin North America for two years. He later returned to coaching at South Carolina State and Furman University before coming home to Clemson.
Industrial engineering is a natural fit for football. Students learn to look at entire systems and processes involved, which are key skills on the field.
Cole Smith, the chair of the Department of Industrial Engineering, recently sat down with Elliott on the 50-yard line of Memorial Stadium to learn more about his formula for success.
The excerpts have been edited for brevity.
Smith: How did you manage being in one of the most difficult academic programs, while balancing time for one of its most demanding teams?
Elliott: First and foremost, I had tremendous support. I had tremendous support from the football side. Obviously, Vickery Hall provides resources to stay up to speed in the classroom. But then I also had great support from the industrial engineering department and the student body as well. You have to manage a lot. There are a lot of sacrifices that have to be made. When your buddies are going out and hanging out on a Thursday night and a Friday night, you’re in the library.
Smith: You had some good mentorship as a student but also professionally. How has that played a role growing up, and what would you recommend for other students currently in the program to look for in a mentor or mentoring program?
Elliott: Just as in football, in life you can’t do it by yourself. You’ve got to have people that you’re connected to who can help you through the tough times, who can give you advice to help you prepare for the future. The advice that I would give to students in the program now is surround yourself with other students within the program who are likeminded, who understand the importance of teamwork. That’s how I survived industrial engineering. If you want to be successful, we tell our guys all the time, ‘Sit in front of the class. Create a relationship with the professor and engage so that you can build that relationship.’ If you come upon a tough time, you’ll have somebody in your corner to help you.
Smith: So you never got to the point where you thought, ‘I’ve got to give up one or the other?’
Elliott: There were plenty of days when I thought, ‘Man, what am I doing?’ But my journey to get to Clemson was a little bit different, a little bit unique. I started at the Air Force Academy to play football, and then I decided to come Clemson and (at first) not play football. So when I decided to play football at Clemson, it put it in perspective. I understood that it was a privilege and that it was secondary to my education.
Smith: What lesson from industrial engineering sticks with you the most?
Elliott: The thing I learned from industrial engineering that I take every day is just the engineering, methodical thought process (that goes into) preparation. Football is all about preparation. I think a lot of people come in and they see me on Saturdays, but there are a lot of hours that go into preparing for Saturday. You just make sure you’re being effective and efficient with your time, that you have a strategy in place. And the strategy is going to change week to week.
Smith: You must be seeing a huge amount of increased attention on data and analytics and decision-making. How much have you seen that come in, especially in the use of technology, in college football?
Elliott: It’s changed tremendously. There are a lot of firms and companies that have come into play. They’re taking that data and using an engineering perspective to really, really break it down and make it detailed. And it helps us tremendously. You really want to be efficient and effective in your preparation, and now there are services that have created programs to where that information is automatically calculated.
Smith: How much of your success is due to talent, and how much is due to persistence and hard work?
Elliott: I’d like to say that I’ve been very blessed from an academic standpoint. Things, especially in the math world, early on came easy to me. But I would say it’s more hard work and, again, relationships with individuals who could help me along the way when I didn’t understand something. They could put it in a format that I could understand. So I think there is talent, but I would say that hard work will outwork talent. We tell guys all the time talent is one thing, but it’s the hard work and determination that takes that talent to the next level. We all have a certain amount of natural talent, but you can elevate your natural talent to a higher platform if you put that hard work and dedication to it.
Smith: So we’ve established that there’s nothing that you can’t do. Give us something surprising that you can do that people don’t about.
Elliott: I don’t know if it’s surprising, but I like to snowboard. I don’t have a whole lot of time, so I’m not very good at it. But I do enjoy snowboarding. There are several things I have to work at. But, ultimately, I think if you put your mind to it and you’re dedicated to putting in the hard work that you’ll be successful.