Back in 1926, Western Illinois legend Ray "Rock" Hanson began coaching in Macomb at age 31. Ironically, recently named Leatherneck head coach Jared Elliott is 31.
"I didn't know that," Elliott said. "That's pretty interesting."
Elliott took over as WIU head coach Jan. 4 following the departure of Charlie Fisher, who took a position on Herman Edwards' Arizona State staff. Elliott is the 34th head coach in Western's 115-year history.
For the record, Howard Hawkes holds the distinction as the youngest head coach in Western Illinois history. Hawkes was 27 when he took over in 1922.
Elliott, meanwhile, served under Fisher as the Leathernecks' assistant head coach and co-offensive coordinator since arriving in Macomb in 2016.
"In my evaluation of the program and what I felt was necessary to continue our development and progression to the next step in Leatherneck football, it became readily apparent to me that our next head football coach is already on the staff," said athletic director Matt Tanney on GoLeathernecks.com.
According to his WIU biography, Elliott joined Western in 2012 after serving as a graduate assistant for Fisher at Miami (Ohio). Elliott was a graduate assistant in both 2010 and 2011. He later coached wide receivers at Missouri Southern State University.
A native of Franklin, Tenn., Elliott was a quarterback and wide receiver at Miami (Ohio) from 2004 to 2007. A four-year player, he was part of three Mid-American Conference championships and the 2004 Independence Bowl. He received his bachelor's degree in kinesiology and health with a minor in coaching.
Prairie State Pigskin talked with Elliott earlier this week.
You've moved down the hall to a bigger office. What's the first thing you moved in or put up on the wall?
Trust me, I have not fully moved in yet. It’s been an absolute whirlwind. There’s boxes and all that. But I’ve got pictures up all over the office of my wife Jamie and my three girls. I’ve got three kids all under the age of five. Ava is my oldest at five, then Sadie is three and Clara is my youngest at one. I always joke that I’ve got all these girls at home and then I’ve got a bunch of sons here on the football team.
It’s really important to me that my family and the families of our staff are equally involved in what we’re doing here. I want our families around. I want our children to be around to see their fathers. We're all part of this.
It wasn't that long ago that you played. In what ways does your age in relation to the players help you?
I do think there is a little bit of a gap that can be bridged in the way that I think I can understand young men and players and the way to relate to them. A lot of coaching is motivating, finding ways to motivate your players. Every young man is different in how you do that. When you have the ability to develop a relationship with a player, it all starts with trust. When you can establish that trust you can also find ways to motivate them and to maximize their ability. I believe that's an advantage for me in being able to relate to my players.
Now, having said that, because I'm a younger guy doesn't mean that I'm buddy-buddy with them. They understand that it's a coach-player relationship. There are certain ways that we're going to do things. There's accountability. The standard has been set and the bar is set high. You're either in or you're out. It's very black or white in terms of how we're going to do things.
The other way it's a big advantage is in recruiting. When you're more in tune with how kids are so visual on the social media side of things. That also plays in my favor.
Did you have a definitive goal in mind for becoming a head coach?
To be honest it all happened very quickly for everybody here. No question that I've always wanted to be a head coach. That has been a dream of mine, a passion of mine. To lead a program. To surround myself with great men. That is always something that I've known I've wanted to do. And to be honest with you, I feel like I'm ready for it. I know age is always a topic of discussion to people. I am a big believer that regardless of how many years that I have in this profession matched up to other people that in any line of work it's about the people that you are exposed to. I've learned so much from some incredible men in this profession. I've learned things that have helped me mature and develop as a coach far beyond my years and age.
I've learned a lot of things far beyond football. Those things have helped shape me, mold me and prepare me for this opportunity that I'm in right now. I feel that I'm very ready for it. I'm excited about it. I never put an age (on becoming a head coach). I just trusted that when it was my time that I'd be ready. It happened a little sooner rather than later for me.
What was the most valuable thing you learned from Charlie Fisher?
First of all, Charlie is an unbelievable person. He's such a teacher of the game. A football coach is a teacher. It's no different than a teacher in high school or a professor on campus. It's our job to teach football to young men, but far beyond that it's teaching life skills. Football is so unique in all its lessons. It teaches you about work ethic, teamwork, accountability . . . these are things that you take with you after football and apply to the real world.
Charlie was an unbelievable teacher. He put a stamp on my life. First of all, how do you get your message across to your players? You have to be a great communicator no matter what that message might be. The other thing is that when you're a leader, you've got to be able to cast a vision. But it goes far beyond on that. You also have to come up with a way to implement it. You have to stress the little details that add up to being big things that can carry out that vision.
Charlie did such a great job the way he taught his staff, the way he taught his players. He didn't just have a big, broad generic vision. He had a very clear and precise purpose every single day of what we wanted to accomplish. All that, at the end of the day, catapulted us to our goal.
He is such a good man. He cared about people. I'm a big believer in a leadership role that's not a dictatorship. It's not a "my way or the highway" deal. Leaders are great servants. When you make people understand that you genuinely care about them, you can really empower and create confidence in people.
All of those things I've learned from Charlie I will carry with me the rest of my life.
What is the biggest challenge you face as a head coach?
When you're sitting in this chair you begin to think about a lot of things you never thought about when you were an assistant. Your mind is now geared to big picture thinking. As an offensive coordinator I was in charge of a unit and half of the team. I set a vision for our offense. You have to coordinate a scheme and the personnel to fit that scheme.
Now, you're sitting in this chair thinking about the big picture. What is best for this program, for these young men, for this staff? You realize the responsibilities have grown immensely. Some people's minds are wired for that process, and I really do believe that mine is one of those.
It's a constant juggling and prioritizing of what's truly important so you're not getting weighed down by things that really aren't as important and ultimately don't matter. The biggest adjustment is going to be that big picture thought process for the success of Western Illinois football.
You still need to hire an offensive and defensive coordinator. How is that process playing out?
It's going very well. First of all, I'll say that the bulk of this staff--not all, but the bulk--is going to stay here with me. I'm really excited about the guys that are here. There has been an overwhelming amount of interest for the jobs that I have available. I've had the opportunity to talk to several, several great football coaches (who are interested). It's amazing how many really good football coaches are out there when these openings come about.
It is very, very important for me, first of all, to hire really good men. That is so important to me. As I've said before, I am a believer that everything is about people. It starts with our coaching staff. So, no doubt I have to hire outstanding teachers of the game, but I've got to hire really good men. Men that can model a positive example and impact and influence these young men's lives far beyond football.
You have to find the right fit for Western. You want to find guys that really want to be at Western Illinois and who take a lot of pride in being a Leatherneck and who are a positive representation for this university.
I'm in no rush. I want to take my time and make sure that we get those right guys. Getting back to the big picture thought process, I have to get the right guys for the kids and for our program. I will not sacrifice a great football coach for not being a good person.