Bobby Elliott was 'everything that is good about college athletics'
Bobby Elliott, the former Iowa football player who spent the last 19 years of his distinguished coaching career undergoing a series of cancer scares and bold recoveries, died Saturday of complications from the disease that occasionally sapped his strength but never his spirit.
Elliott, 64, died in hospice care in Iowa City weeks after taking a hiatus from his final job at Nebraska. He was with his family at the time, close friend Dan McCarney said. Elliott was hired to be safeties coach at the Big Ten Conference school in February but moved into a defensive analyst position June 20 as his illness recurred.
“He never ever presented a self-pity kind of situation. He never wanted you to feel sorry for him,” former Iowa sports information director Phil Haddy said. “He was always upbeat and he always thought he was going to lick it. And he did for 19 years.”
Haddy visited Elliott in his hospice home Friday, when it was apparent that the end was near.
“He squeezed my hand and he opened an eye,” Haddy said of that final encounter with his friend.
Elliott is survived by his wife Joey, son Grant, daughter Jessica, brother Bill, sister Betsy Stough, and father Chalmers "Bump" Elliott, a former longtime athletic director at Iowa.
He’s also survived by dozens of players he mentored over the years.
“His coaching of football players was everything that is good about college athletics. He taught them to be adults. He taught them to be people of academic achievement as well as high athletic achievement,” former Iowa athletic director Bob Bowlsby said. “His legacy is really the hundreds and hundreds of young men that are out there in successful careers and successful families because of his influence.”
Elliott was born May 6, 1953, and grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., where his father coached the Michigan Wolverines football team. The Elliotts moved to Iowa City in 1970 when Bump became the Hawkeyes’ athletic director and Bobby graduated from West High.
Elliott played defensive back at Iowa from 1972-75 and was a standout in the classroom as well, earning academic all-American honors in 1974 and ’75 and becoming a candidate for a Rhodes Scholarship in 1976.
"He was undersized. He wasn’t that fast. Not supposed to be good enough, but he was. He knew that defense inside and out and everybody’s responsibilities," said McCarney, who first met Elliott when they competed against each other in track as rival Iowa City high schoolers and then became his football teammate and roommate with the Hawkeyes. "The toughness part of it? He’s not going to scare you with his imposing body or figure, but the ball is snapped and the sparks start flying and Bobby Elliott was going to be right in the middle of that. He never, ever, not one time, shied away from contact.”
Elliott's bachelor’s degree was in history, but his calling was in football, and he embarked on his coaching career immediately, as a graduate assistant for the Hawkeyes.
McCarney again was by his side, performing unglamorous tasks for little pay in a dingy room they called "the dungeon" near Iowa's old fieldhouse. Their background noise was an audiotape of the Big Ten schools' fight songs. They'd sing along.
“We knew every word to every damn fight song in the Big Ten and we talked about someday maybe we’ll be able to get out of this dungeon down here and maybe we’ll get a chance to be coaches and get full-time jobs someday. And we’d laugh and giggle. Because you never knew what the future held," McCarney said.
They eventually coached together at Iowa State.
Elliott married Joey, a fellow Iowa student he had begun dating when they were freshmen. Joey Elliott took teaching jobs in the myriad college towns where Bobby’s coaching career took them.
After Iowa, Elliott spent one season at Kent State in Ohio, three at Ball State in Indiana, two at Iowa State, and four at North Carolina before finally finding a semblance of stability back in Iowa City.
Iowa coach Hayden Fry hired Elliott as secondary coach in 1987 and he and his family spent the next 13 years there. One of Elliott's early recruiting victories involved Bo Porter, a gifted football and baseball player from New Jersey who had verbally committed to attend Miami.
Elliott kept showing up at Porter's basketball games. Finally, Porter asked him: "Why the persistence?"
"I'm tired of losing to Michigan and Ohio State," Elliott told Porter.
Porter headed to Iowa City, and Elliott helped transform his life. Porter called Elliott the greatest coach he ever had.
“It started as a coach-player relationship and in short order became a father-son relationship," Porter said. "I don’t think anyone expects that when you first meet a coach. It’s something that just evolves over time and it was so authentic and so real that it almost just felt normal."
Elliott offered advice to Porter when he was embarking on his own coaching career in baseball, one that eventually led to him managing the Houston Astros. The two formed a lifelong friendship. Porter, now a special assistant to the general manager of the Atlanta Braves, flew to Iowa on June 16 to spend the day with Elliott.
“It allowed me to have some final moments with him even before he was transitioned into hospice," Porter said. "It’s a memory that I will cherish forever because he was still coherent. We were able to talk and hug and tell stories. ... It gives me some closure."
With the Hawkeyes, Elliott added the titles of defensive coordinator in 1996 and assistant head coach in ’98. He was a potential heir apparent to Fry, who was suffering through a 3-8 season and headed for retirement.
But that was the year Elliott also was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer called polycythemia vera that left him near death and in need of a bone marrow transplant. Any thoughts of becoming the Hawkeyes’ next head coach — a job that went to current coach Kirk Ferentz — were pushed aside as Elliott focused on survival.
Bowlsby made sure Elliott had a job that offered health insurance, creating a position in administration for him. Elliott’s cousin, Gregg Underwood, donated the life-saving marrow.
“He was a big part of the Hayden Fry staff and certainly would have been in the mix to be the head coach when we hired Kirk Ferentz,” Bowlsby said. “He was ill at that time and it wasn’t at all clear that he was going to be able to continue coaching.”
Bowlsby recalled visiting Elliott in the hospital, where he was kept in isolation because his immune system was so diminished. At times, Bowlsby struggled to recognize Elliott because his face was so swollen from the fluids being pumped into him to prepare him for the marrow transplant.
“He just always showed a quiet strength and dignity that was an inspiration,” Bowlsby said.
“Bob had a lot of talents, and I tried to get him to become a full-time administrator because I thought that it would be better for his health and it might be more sustainable. A coach’s life is not for the faint of heart. … Making sure that he had health benefits was certainly part of it. But there was a broader aspiration there, too. And in the end, his heart was in coaching, so he went back to it when he had a chance. It’s astonishing to me that it’s been that long.”
In 2000, Elliott linked up with McCarney as associate head coach at Iowa State. But the cancer had crept back into his blood cells and Elliott worked that season while undergoing chemotherapy. The following fall, it appeared that he would need another transplant but doctors in Iowa City informed Elliott that the medication they had been giving him had done its job and cleansed his blood.
McCarney said hiring his friend was an easy decision, telling Elliott at the time: "College football needs you."
"Bobby defined how he wanted to be remembered every day, and that was never be pretentious. Don’t be a phony. Be genuine," McCarney said.
McCarney recalled Elliott telling him: "A lot of young people would rather be entertained than challenged. Let’s challenge them. Let’’s keep them on edge, Let’s get them better.”
Elliott became Kansas State defensive coordinator in 2002, a job he held for four years. His 2002 defense led the nation in points allowed (11.8 points per game) and featured star cornerback Terence Newman, a future Dallas Cowboy.
In 2006, he headed west to San Diego State to serve as defensive coordinator on the staff of former Hawkeye quarterback Chuck Long.
Elliott returned to Ames for a third stint with the Cyclones in 2010, spending two years coaching the secondary before going to Notre Dame in 2012.
More Bobby Elliott coverage:
- Randy Peterson: Bobby Elliott serves as an inspiration for us all
- From the Archives: Bobby Elliott's Story: The greatest gift of all
It was in South Bend that health issues cropped up again. Elliott’s kidneys were failing, and he steadfastly gave himself dialysis throughout his first season while waiting for a kidney donor. That turned out to be his younger sister, Betsy Stough. Elliott spent the next four seasons on the Fighting Irish staff, becoming special assistant to head coach Brian Kelly before Nebraska lured him away in February.
Elliott was always open about his health struggles, telling Sports Illustrated in a 2013 profile: “The plus for me is letting people know that other people with kidney disease or cancer can fight through and make it. That’s the only motivation I’ve ever had for disclosing this, as it doesn’t help me or the team.”
The cancer returned this spring and, this time, Elliott was unable to fight it off. McCarney said he spoke with Elliott three times during Nebraska's spring practices and his friend seemed in high spirits and as healthy as ever.
"It was shocking how fast things went downhill," McCarney said.
Elliott was planning a recruiting trip to Florida, but blacked out the night before he was to leave and started having headaches. McCarney said Joey Elliott flew down with him to serve as his chauffeur and keep an eye on her husband. The blackouts and headaches continued and when they returned to Nebraska, Elliott went in for tests and received his grim diagnosis.
McCarney flew from his Sarasota, Fla., home to Iowa City on Saturday and got to see Elliott one final time. Elliott was wearing the "Magnificent Seven" shirt that McCarney had made for him and five other former Hawkeye teammates three years ago.
Those seven — Elliott, McCarney, Dave Butler, Jim McNulty, Rick Penney, John Speaker and Brandt Yocum — had a reunion in 2014 in Dallas, singing the Iowa fight song in a hotel lobby. It has become an annual event.
“We saw lots and lots and lots of players come and go and we stayed strong and stayed together," McCarney said of their playing days, which included too few wins and no bowl appearances.
For the first reunion, McCarney broke out old film from their senior season, 1975.
“None of us were worth a damn, but we don’t tell people that. We just sat there and laughed and critiqued and had a great time,” McCarney said.
This year's reunion is planned for Sarasota in two weeks, McCarney said. The group is down to five now, with Butler also having recently passed, wearing his "Magnificent Seven" shirt to the end as well.
“Don’t think it didn’t have some real meaning to it. It did,” McCarney said, speaking of the annual gathering of friends, but also of their playing days.
And certainly Elliott's life.
Funeral arrangements for Bobby Elliott are pending.