The memory of a player gone too soon and a brave brother saved only by good fortune convinced Dave Elliott to develop a coaching style that has delivered him a prized role at Hostplus Cup premiers Norths Devils.
Elliott has started work as the Devils head coach, returning to his native southeast Queensland after 15 years in the state’s north.
The son of a Goomeri cattle farmer is awaiting the arrival of wife Carrie and their three young boys, who will relocate to Brisbane after finishing the school year in Mackay.
Elliott cracked the Hostplus Cup head-coaching ranks with the Cutters this year, sparking improvement in the Mackay club with wins over the likes of minor premiers Burleigh Bears. He was working part-time as a high-school teacher while juggling coaching and family commitments.
But the Devils made a fulltime offer that attracted Elliott back to the city in which he studied and played senior football for Brothers before the north Queensland move.
In Townsville, Elliott would follow a classic coaching path, leading rugby league nursery Ignatius Park College to three treasured Confraternity Shield triumphs while mixing time as an assistant with the Cowboys’ Under 20 team and Townsville Blackhawks and head coach of the Blackhawks’ Colts.
While he was teaching at Ignatius Park College and in the Cowboys Under 20 system, Elliott coached and mentored Alex Elisala.
The young man lived with Elliott and Carrie while at school and developed a close relationship with the pair.
They were shattered when Elisala took his own life in 2013 during a period in which north Queensland’s rugby league community dealt with several deaths by suicide.
The following year, Elliott’s brother Len was severely injured in a story that made national headlines. The police officer was conducting a random breath test when a motorbike rider swiped him at rapid speed.
If not for two officers who came across the debris shortly after, Len Elliott would have died from the collision that sent part of his leg spinning 60 metres away from where he was found.
The senior constable would lose his leg above the knee, but eventually fight his way back to work, while the motorbike rider was sent to jail.
The shocks made Elliott reassess his coaching style, structuring his approach more around values and the person.
“That was a time that really caused a reassessment,” Elliott said.
“Our focus went on to developing the person, the character and then then player because it was time to make it more about the player.
“We wanted to instil our values within our playing and coaching staff.”
That approach is familiar to the Devils players who have driven the club to back-to-back premierships.
The coaching staff and leadership team have enhanced a culture in which the development of the person off the field has been central to success on the field.
Elliott isn’t daunted at taking over a team that has captured two unforgettable grand final wins in the last two years.
“The challenge is to continue to be successful and it’s a good challenge to face,” Elliott said.
“If you win premierships, that means you have a good culture and a strong leadership group.
“The standards here are high and our goal will be to maintain those standards.”
Elliott brings some Devils connections to his role as the club’s 42nd head coach.
He counts 1990 Devils grand final backrower and Padua College principal Peter Elmore among the mentors who convinced him to develop as a coach.
Elliott played university rugby league under Elmore, joining the Queensland tertiary team on a tour of the United Kingdom.
He was studying applied science at university, ultimately completing a Masters’ degree, after briefly considering following his father into life on the land.
The youngest of four children, Elliott was raised on his parents’ cattle and lucerne hay property at Goomeri in the South Burnett.
He helped across the property while growing up, mixing the hard work with a love for rugby league sparked by his first game as a four-year-old with the Goomeri Tryhards.
He admitted to struggling in his first semester at university – the thought of joining his father fulltime on the property loomed – but he returned and completed his degree and postgraduate qualifications.
“There weren’t too many jobs around in exercise science at the time but there was an opportunity in teaching and it was enjoyable,” Elliott said.
“An offer came to move to Townsville and teach at Ignatius Park so we went there, not really knowing what would come next, but it was a good move. That was 15 years ago so it’s exciting to be back here with family.”
At Ignatius Park College, Elliott’s students and players included the likes of Origin players Michael Morgan and Kyle Feldt.
He took over the school coaching role from Kristian Woolf, who is about to link with the NRL Redcliffe Dolphins after leading St Helen’s to this year’s UK Super League premiership.
Elliott was Woolf’s assistant at the Cowboys’ Under 20 team and then in the inaugural Blackhawks team that joined the Queensland Cup in 2015.
The Mackay Cutters appointment this year was well-deserved after a long coaching journey.
“I’ll always be grateful to the Cutters for giving me that chance,” Elliott said.
“Now it’s time for a new challenge and it’s an exciting time getting ready for a new season.”