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July 21, 2014
In Conversation: Shawn Elliott
A lightly recruited defensive end from Camden High School, Shawn Elliott convinced the Appalachian State coaching staff to take him, and all he did from there was become the first player in school history to appear in the NCAA Division 1-AA playoffs all four years, helping his team to two Southern Conference titles.
When he got the call to return to Appalachian State as a coach, all he did was help guide the Mountaineers to three straight national championships from 2005-2007.
When he saw the Gamecocks - the team he and his brother grew up pulling for and going to games to watch with their father - struggling without an offensive line coach in an embarrassing 20-7 loss to Connecticut in the Papa John's Bowl, he reached out and campaigned for the job just as he once had campaigned for a scholarship offer from App State.
He got the job, just like the scholarship money, and his track record at USC has been so good that Nick Saban at Alabama tried to lure Elliott away in 2013.
With arguably one of the deepest, most talented offensive lines in memory that is rated among the best in the SEC and nationally, Elliott has never been more at home with his life, his work and success.
But that's not what Gamecock Central sat down to talk with Elliott about. Instead, as a father of two, GC met with Elliott in his office in the Floyd Building at Williams-Brice Stadium to talk about the demands of the coaching life on raising and maintaining a family.
Enjoy this unique perspective on the family life of one USC coach, the personal side of the profession that is so vital to providing the balance necessary to absorb both success and failure.
Note: This is Part One of a two-part conversation.
Gamecock Central: Coach, can you talk a little about your journey from Camden to Appalachian State to begin with?
Shawn Elliott: Sure. As a Gamecock fan, I wanted to go to USC but wasn't offered. So if I couldn't go to South Carolina, I wanted to go (to Appalachian State). When I was getting recruited, I didn't even have a scholarship offer to go to Appalachian State. I sent them film, and they were like, "We don't have anything." The head coach actually called me one day, like the week before Signing Day, and said, "We don't have anything, but if you want to come up on an official visit it'd be great."
So I went up that weekend and ended up getting a half-scholarship that Sunday. I told them, "I was coming to school here for free, but I appreciate it."
GC: You have two children, a daughter, Maddyn, who is 7,and a son Max, who is 6. Both of them were born in Boone, correct?
Elliott: We were in Boone when we had both our children. With Maddyn, my wife actually went into labor Saturday morning before we played a game. We had Gardner-Webb on ESPNU that day, and my wife went into labor at 6 a.m.
She went into the hospital and they sent us home. She told me to go on to the game, and at first I was like, "No, no, no, I'm staying." But my mother-in-law was there and so I ended-up going to the game.
I gave my phone to my associate A.D. up there at the time and said, "If my phone rings, you answer that phone during the game." The game was about eight o'clock that night. He comes up to me in the third quarter and says, "I missed 20 calls!" So I left in the middle of the third quarter and drove up to the hospital. It's on television, me leaving during the game, and we actually showed that to my daughter leaving and told her "This is when you were born."
She ended-up being born Sunday morning. It was a long process.
GC: Summer was a tennis player at Appalachian State when you met, so she knew something of the sporting life and it's time demands, right?
GC: When you got into coaching, how did you negotiate the demands of a coach's schedule with a spouse?
Elliott: You just kind of explain that this is how it is. You're going to be gone a great deal of time, especially during the season when it's a non-stop process. You have to find a good woman who's going to put up with it - not put up with it, but understand that you have these time demands placed on you and they have to be really, really good at handling that. Especially when you have kids, because the time you're going to be gone in season, I know when I was there (at App State) we'd leave at 6 a.m. and come home at 8 o'clock that evening. That's a long day, and that was basically seven days a week with no breaks whatsoever.
GC: What's your schedule like here at USC?
Elliott: We come in and have a staff meeting at 8:30 in the morning then we're here all day long. Sometimes on Mondays we practice at night, so we'll come in at 8:30 and we're here all day and are home at 10 that night. So they run long.
We stay on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and watch practice in the evening, then we have family nights on Wednesday nights where our families come to dinner then we come back and watch practice, but we're out of here by 9 o'clock, maybe a little earlier, maybe a little later. It all depends on what you have to do. We have a great opportunity to see our family a lot here, which is really, really beneficial.
I live relatively close (to work), I live about eight minutes down the road. It's a perfect distance to be close to home for me, and it's great because if Summer wants to come to lunch she can come down, or my son Max, who is going into first grade, I can swing by and pick him up and go to lunch if I have 30 minutes. It's an easy way to see them.
GC: Did you plan on living close to the stadium when you took the job? Was that part of your thinking?
Elliott: When we first got married, we lived about 25 minutes away from the stadium there in Boone. As soon as we had kids we moved right into town.for lunch she could walk over and we could go exercise together or do whatever.
That's the number one thing - if you're going to spend so much time at this one spot, let's get close so if you need to run home you can do that and run back.
GC: So do you do many lunches with your wife during the season?
Elliott: Certainly. On Thursdays like when everything is kind of completed, usually that's my day where I'd go pick up Max from pre-school or go to Brennan Elementary and have lunch with Maddyn or Summer and I could go to lunch.
That's something that a lot of people don't have. If you live 25, 30 minutes away, you can't do that.
GC: Did you ever want to move back Camden?
Elliott: No. I didn't want any part of that. Not that there's anything wrong with it; it's a beautiful place, a great place. It's just the commute. I didn't want to do it, and that's because of family.
GC: How do you take advantage of time you have during the season, such as off weeks?
Elliott: I definitely do, and it's fantastic.
GC: Do you stay at home, or do you try to go someplace to get away from football?
Elliott: If it's in season, we want to stay here (in Columbia). I want to be able to go home. If I've been recruiting that Friday, I want to be able to go home, put my feet up and have no distractions and just watch football on Saturday like a regular person.
Getting in the car and driving somewhere to turn right back around with two small kids, that's more stressful to me than football. I just like to sit around and be a football fan.
GC: Can you watch just as a fan and not be thinking about scores and conference scenarios and potential matchups?
Elliott: Once you become a coach you watch the game differently forever. You break down what they did or see why they did this and didn't do that. You'll see a great play and try to write it down to remember it. You just watch it differently.
GC: You coach offensive line now, so I'm sure you watch that closely. You played defensive line in college; what other positions have you coached?
Elliott: I started out as a defensive assistant. I'd never played offense in my life. Then I moved from there coaching linebackers and defensive ends to coaching tight ends. I remember my head coach at the time telling me if I learned how to coach offensive line I'd be set.
He told me to stay with the line coach we had at the time and learn everything you can about it. I did, and I hope now that I never have to coach another position. I think it would be hard for me.
GC: Why is that?
Elliott: I just love it. I love everything about it. I love the physicality of it. I love the numebr of guys you get to coach. I always say it's a team within a team. You build that bond there because those guys are so dependent on one another whether it's protection or run blocking.
You slip up, you have a sack or loss of yards, it's tough. It builds a camaraderie that's special. So I love it, I really do.
GC: So with the offseason, how do you approach spending time with family?
Elliott: You make up for time lost during the season. That's the main goal I have in the offseason. That time lost when you're in Pennsylvania recruiting or you're here all day and all night on Saturdays and every day in the fall, you try to make it up to your wife and kids.
I want them to know I'm as much a part of their life as any other father. I just don't have the same type of job of a guy who comes home on a Friday and doesn't have to go back to work until Monday. I try to do that as best as possible. It doesn't matter how you do it, whether we're at a pool or they're up here at the office running around; they enjoy being around here, just wherever their dad is.
GC: One other thing you have on most dads is that your kids get to see you on television during games.
Elliott: That's true. I think their initial reaction is they enjoy seeing me, then they lose interest. The more they get older, the more they hear from fans of other teams and now they're starting to identify themselves as Gamecocks and wear that pride.
GC: When you and your wife decided to have children, how much conversation was there about what the roles would be in a coaching family?
Elliott: You have to prepare when you're a coach. You have to say, "Look, this is how it's going to work. I can't be here for all the things I need to be here for. You're going to have to do a lot of that for us."
But we've been really blessed because coach (Steve) Spurrier is so great to work for. I don't miss many events, whether it's a Christmas play or something like that at 10 a.m., I can swing by and make it. That's what's so great about working here, the flexibility he gives you and the importance he knows of families and you being there for them.
GC:How long were you married before you had children?
Elliott: Five years. Summer worked in Boone right up until the time she got pregnant, then we then sat down and talked about it. Of course, at App State you don't make as much money as you do at South Carolina, but we said early on that we wanted her to be able to stay home with the child, so the question was can you make it work?
We knew we had to live a certain lifestyle but that's it's going to be beneficial for our kids. In a coaching family, you need someone who is the strong one to be there at times when you can't. Summer agreed, and it's been great. Even in Boone, it was fantastic. You make it work.
GC: Is Max going to be a football player?
Elliott: Max, I don't know. Max is a different bird. Maddyn? Definitely. She's the athlete. It's hard to tell now, of course, but Maddyn at 7 years-old, she's the one I throw the football with. Every night, she's wanting to throw the football, throw the football, throw the football. Max is like, "Nah." But he may grow into it. He's very cautious. We'll see.
Coming tomorrow...Elliott's path to USC, his advice to those in coaching on how to maintain a healthy work-family balance and, of course, a little bit about that heralded offensive line.
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