Bump Elliott, architect of Iowa's athletic department for 21 years, dies at age 94
Bump Elliott, the architect of Iowa's athletic department during a remarkable run of success from 1970-91, died late Saturday. He was 94.
The University of Iowa confirmed his death Sunday morning.
Elliott hired four of the most prominent coaches in Hawkeye history — Dan Gable (wrestling), Hayden Fry (football), Lute Olson and Tom Davis (men's basketball). Elliott's tenure included 34 Big Ten Conference championship teams and 11 national titles in wrestling.
“Bump was a difference-maker in my life and the lives of many others. I felt lucky to be under a guy who knew very well what he was doing, in terms of his business," Gable said in a university news release. "At first, he didn’t make any promises, but he said, ‘you do well, and I will do well for you,’ and he honored that."
Elliott ushered in an era of stability unheard of in modern college athletics. Since Elliott's retirement, Iowa has had only two other athletic directors — Bob Bowlsby and Gary Barta. Christine Grant was athletic director for women's sports from 1973-2000
Fry won 143 games with the Hawkeyes from 1979-98 and was succeeded by Kirk Ferentz, who is in his 21st season.
Gable led Iowa to 15 national championships from 1976-97. The Hawkeyes have had two wrestling coaches since — Jim Zalesky and Tom Brands.
Elliott was an all-American halfback at Michigan in 1947 who came to Iowa originally as an assistant football coach in 1952. He left Forest Evashevski's staff to coach football at his alma mater, leading the Wolverines from 1959-68, including a victory in the 1965 Rose Bowl. He was 51-42-2 as the head coach there.
Elliott returned to Iowa in 1970 to replace Evashevski as athletic director. He was 45 and was paid $27,000 a year to smooth out a department in turmoil. Evashevski had resigned and football coach Ray Nagel was fired after the two had squabbled for years.
"Iowa was split pretty bad with two personalities that caused quite a rumpus on campus and caused some firings," Elliott told the Register in 2008. "I wanted to make sure we all worked together and were loyal to each other, the department and the university."
Phil Haddy, the longtime sports information director at Iowa, came aboard in 1971 and quickly noticed Elliott's genuine kindness.
"You almost didn't feel like you were working for him. It was really a family back then," Haddy said.
"You worked hard because you didn't want to disappoint Bump. You didn't want to do anything that would put him in a bad light."
Elliott drew on his years as an athlete and coach when it came to making hires.
"It was a feel I had for them, and how I would relate to them," Elliott said in that Register interview. "There's no sense hiring somebody who is a good coach if you don't like them — because you're going to work with them, and your future is in their hands and in the hands of 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids. So you better get someone you can work with and trust."
"As a coach who worked for Bump, you had a sense that he was there with you all the way, in understanding the demands of coaching in the Big Ten Conference. He was a coach’s athletic director, and he was always in the room with you," Davis said in a university release.
"Bump understood what it took for success. He excelled as a student-athlete in so many ways, and he was able to carry that over as an excellent administrator.”
Elliott's most significant hire might have been Fry, in 1979. He had replaced Nagel with Frank Lauterbur in 1971. Three seasons later, Bob Commings was hired for five seasons. The Hawkeyes had gone 17 years without a winning football program when Elliott turned to the Texan who would turn everything around.
Elliott joked that Fry would be the last hire he made at Iowa, because either he would forge a winning culture in the most important sport, or he would fail and Elliott would lose his job.
"I first got to know Bump when I was an assistant coach under Hayden Fry in the 1980s and I enjoyed every opportunity to spend time with him for more than three decades," Ferentz said in a university release.
"I have the highest regard and respect for him and the entire Elliott family. His leadership and vision helped shape the culture and competitiveness of athletics at the University of Iowa. It's safe to say that Hawkeye athletics would not be where they are today without Bump Elliott."
Elliott became synonymous with the Rose Bowl, and is in its hall of fame. He played in the game, but also experienced it as an assistant coach, head coach, assistant athletic director and athletic director. And as a fan.
Elliott is also enshrined in the halls of fame at the University of Michigan and Iowa, plus the National Football Foundation.
But he was unassuming when it came to his role at Iowa, Haddy recalled. He preferred to let the coaches and athletes bask in the glory.
"He was always in the background," Haddy said. "Even when we had great victories, you never saw him in the locker room. I never saw him down on the field."
Elliott's 21-year run included the construction of Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The street abutting the arena is named Elliott Drive in his honor.
"I know what it's like to be an athletic director. I know you make decisions and people get mad at you," Barta said. "I've never met anybody that was mad at Bump Elliott. He was a gentleman and a wonderful representative of college athletics. And he will be missed."
Chalmers William "Bump" Elliott was born Jan. 30, 1925, in Detroit and grew up in Bloomington, Illinois. He was a three-sport athlete at Purdue before being called up to serve with the Marines in China in the final year of World War II. He completed his education at Michigan, where he was named Most Valuable Player of the Big Nine Conference in 1947. His brother, Pete, was the quarterback for that undefeated Wolverines team.
Elliott met his wife, Barbara, while at Purdue. They married in 1949 and had three children — Bill, Bobby and Betsy. Bobby Elliott, a former Hawkeye football player and assistant coach, died of complications from cancer in 2017 at age 64.
"He was a true gentleman who treated everyone with kindness and respect," Elliott's family said in a statement. "Bump’s memory will live on through the thousands of men and women who loved him throughout his great life."
Elliott continued to root for the Wolverines throughout his life, except when they played the Hawkeyes, Haddy said.
"He was truly the leader during the golden era of Iowa athletics," Haddy said of Elliott. "The Elliott family was to Iowa what the Kennedys were to Massachusetts. They're royalty."
Elliott spent his waning years at Oaknoll Retirement Community in Iowa City. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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