COLUMBIA — Whether it was as a defensive end at Camden High School or the interim head coach at South Carolina, Shawn Elliott was never short on effort.
“His dedication was year-round,” recalled Billy Ammons, Elliott’s high school coach. “Just thinking back to the different teams we had, I remember his offseason work in the weight room, him pushing himself. He was one of those guys where his work ethic rubbed off on the other players. He’s that type of guy. He’s very, very passionate about what he does.”
He’s still that way, as he leads USC in the wake of Steve Spurrier’s departure. One month since taking the interim position, two things are clear — the Gamecocks are much more competitive on the field, even if their record doesn’t reflect it; and every chance he gets, Elliott lobbies that the next full-time head coach at USC is the one who will lead South Carolina into Williams-Brice Stadium Saturday to play No. 11 Florida (8-1, 6-1 SEC).
“I want to be here at the University of South Carolina, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make it a very difficult decision,” Elliott said on his weekly radio program. He operates as if the interim tag does not exist. There are moments — such as when he offered condolences on behalf of the program to the family of a fallen Columbia police officer — where it’s clear he’s not simply an offensive line coach playing a part.
“Coach Elliott is our head coach,” said junior right tackle Mason Zandi. “Everyone on this team is 110 percent behind him. He’s leading us in a direction that we can see is providing results. And he’s our head ball coach. That’s it.”
As the only known candidate for the full-time job, Elliott has a very public platform with which to state his case. In Camden, Ammons has noticed the transformation of his former defensive end, who started on a 1990 team that went unbeaten and won the state title.
“It seems like he was well prepared to be put in this situation. He seems to know what he wants to do,” Ammons said. “To me, it just seems like maybe he’s been preparing for something like this. I know he’s probably always wanted to be a head coach, and he’s probably laid out and mapped out some of the things he would do if he became a head coach. He’s really shown a lot of improvement in the time since he’s taken over.”
Elliott grew up going to USC games with his father, and taped newspaper clippings onto his bedroom wall. At Appalachian State, where he was an assistant from 1997-2009, “I was the O-line coach, I was the walk-on coordinator, I ran the summer camps, I was the academic liaison. At times I was the equipment manager, and sometimes I drove the bus,” he said.
“I always thought it was going to come back and help me. ... When you can coordinate those type of people, and put them all together, and formulate a great, successful plan, then that certainly helps you. I think it was right on target for me.”
There’s a message in there, one which goes beyond coordinating walk-ons or monitoring academics. Elliott will admit, the aftermath of Spurrier’s resignation was “a whirlwind.” But he was quick to enact his plan, which included a number of noticeable departures from how things were done before. He adapted to being accountable for everything. In his mind, he was ready.
“I’ve said all along, I’ve been prepared for these things,” Elliott said. “I’ve thought about them every day for a long time now — how would I respond, how could I answer this, how would I react to a situation, and how would I answer questions that were thrown at me. ... I’ve thought about it a lot over my coaching career, and right now it seems to be working out as well as it can.”
Players have responded. “We love him as a coach,” said senior left guard Mike Matulis. “You can ask any player on the team, no one has a bad thing to say about him. Everyone respects him, and everyone wants him here. Even with me leaving, I hope he stays. I pull for him a lot. I think he’s a great coach.”
Elliott sold himself to athletic director Ray Tanner for the interim role, and is doing the same now with the full-time job in the balance. But he seems aware that close losses may not be enough — it may take victories down the stretch, both to give the Gamecocks (3-6, 1-6) a shot at avoiding their first losing season in over a decade, and Elliott a chance at holding onto the job beyond this year.
“You can’t continue to lose by seven, seven. That gets you nowhere,” Elliott said on his radio program. “That doesn’t get me where I want to be, that doesn’t get the Gamecock fans and this great university and football program were it needs to be. ... We’re doing the things necessary to win. It’s going to happen. Stay with us.”