A Hawkeye legend and one of the best assistant coaches in college football history has died at 64.
There was a time when everyone knew the Iowa football coaching job belonged to Bob Elliott. Iowa's task of finding a replacement for Hayden Fry was underway long before the legendary head coach stepped down after a 3-9 season and a prostate cancer diagnosis. Fry was nearing 70 years old, and any organization worth its salt has a succession plan in place. Most of Fry's protégés were already head coaches or top assistants elsewhere in college football — oh, they'd certainly listen if you called — but for the legions of outside candidates, there was still one in house who checked all the boxes, right down to the Hawkeye blood in his veins.
That was Bob Elliott, West High graduate, former University of Iowa defensive back, and son of former Michigan football coach and legendary Iowa AD Bump Elliott, who passed away Sunday morning at age 64. Bob had gone into coaching as soon as his college career ended and had been a member of Hayden's staff since 1987. The 1998 season would be Elliott's 12th with Fry and his 23rd as an assistant coach — and his first as Fry's assistant head coach, alongside the titles of outside linebackers coach and defensive coordinator. He was still in his mid-40s, about to hit the prime window where expertise and experience overlap with a younger coach's hunger and energy. His defenses remained ferocious, giving up about 13 points per game and pitching three shutouts in the 1997 season. It was all there.
And Bob couldn't do it.
It is unfair to reduce Elliott's life or career to a mere accounting of his maladies. Yet it is impossible to tell his story as a coach without including his relentless fight to stay on the sidelines.
Let's back up to 1991, Bob's fifth since returning to Iowa City. Elliott developed blood clots that forced the removal of his spleen. That began a stretch where Elliott was, by his admission, at the UIHC at least once a week. The blood in his veins had already begun to betray him. It hadn't stopped him, not by a longshot, but the fight was already on.
Fast-forward to 1998. During spring practices, his blood disease — polycythemia vera — had become active again. For the purposes of simplicity, we'll put it like this: it's a blood cancer that starts in bone marrow whose primary effect is creating too many red blood cells. The associated effects are often fatal. You don't sit back and hope for the best; you treat aggressively or you die. You maybe die anyway.
Doctors began a daily treatment plan to keep Elliott on the job and on the sidelines, even as he was so exhausted that he needed naps at noon to keep going. His condition still worsened, and in the spring of 1999, Elliott was hospitalized for 32 days for a last-chance bone marrow transplant from his cousin. This 2006 breakdown from Matt Fortuna is a gut-wrenching and essential read on Elliott's struggles at that point.
At that point, Iowa could not have possibly hired him as a head coach, though Elliott remained a crucial figure in the coaching transition all the same. Per Wayne Drehs at ESPN in 2000:
Yet it was Elliott who helped bridge the gap between the old and new staffs when Kirk Ferentz was hired.
"I commuted for the better part of three weeks after taking the job and Bob in effect ran the program while I was gone," said Ferentz, who took over at Iowa after serving as an assistant head coach and offensive line coach with the Baltimore Ravens. "We spoke on the phone every day. I couldn't have made it without his assistance."
Imagine that, for a second. Imagine devoting your life to a goal that most people could never attain: something so moneyed, high-stakes and riotously competitive that it often rivals the publicity and bloodthirst of politics. Imagine having that goal — one you were born and bred to attain, then took all the steps to earn — ripped from you by forces beyond your control, as soon as it was within grasp. Something as real and essential to you as the blood that pumps through you.
Elliott became one of the most trusted and valuable assistants in college football history, even as he carried his medical past, present and future with him.
Then imagine having the grace and goodwill to help someone else succeed at that goal once they had it instead of you. Could you do that? Have you ever known someone who did?
Elliott recovered from that transplant, obviously, and his coaching career evolved with it. Instead of being a surefire head coach, Elliott became one of the most trusted and valuable assistants in college football history, even as he carried his medical past, present and future with him.
A full year after the cancer treatment, Dan McCarney was the first coach to hire Elliott back into college football — at rival Iowa State. Obviously, ISU is not the University of Iowa. It is simultaneously two hours away and on the other end of the earth. But as Elliott's post-Iowa career proved, the least important aspect to consider here is the name on the front of each team's jersey.
McCarney had been on the phone with Elliott during every day of his 32-day hospitalization. That wasn't for football reasons; the two had been childhood friends, dating back to the days at City West when McCarney was a teammate and the son of the police chief. They took that friendship to the sidelines of Kinnick Stadium, when the two were teammates on the woeful '70s Hawkeyes, and they reunited in Iowa City about a decade later when Fry hired Elliott to coach the secondary and McCarney was coaching the defensive line.
McCarney named Elliott his associate head coach at Iowa State, an acknowledgment that in a slightly different universe, Elliott would have merited the job at least as much as McCarney. That universe is not this, however, and a brief relapse in 2001 forced Elliott into more chemotherapy. Doctors feared another transplant would be necessary, but this time the chemo succeeded. Onward and upward.
After two seasons — tied for the best two-season stretch in Iowa State history with 1977-78, including ISU's only 9-win season of the post-WW1 era — Elliott headed off to Kansas State, where he thrived under another former colleague, Bill Snyder, for four seasons as defensive coordinator and secondary coach. That connection is, of course, not an accident. For Elliott, Snyder was not only a colleague, but a seasoned ally in the fight to remain on the sidelines during health challenges. From the Topeka Capital-Journal:
"One thing you've got to remember about Bill Snyder, I don't think anyone has worked through more health problems among his staff, his family and his staff's family as him," Elliott said. "The guy has overcome just about everything. I don't think my deal fazed him at all. He's faced a lot worse than that."
Just on Snyder's own staff, Mo Latimore, Matt Miller and Sean Snyder have successfully healed from recent operations. In addition, offensive coordinator Ron Hudson is a cancer survivor, undergoing prostate surgery during the 1997 season.
Clearly, however, Elliott's ordeal was the most intensive.
"We're not in the same league," Hudson said. "His was life threatening and mine was basically a preventative deal. To my knowledge, they have to regulate and keep an eye on his. I'm not sure anybody understands. He had a total transplant. That's a serious deal, a last-cause deal, and yet he's been great. I'm glad to have him here."
Elliott coached the nation's #2 defense at KSU in 2005, then parlayed it into an assistant head coaching job at San Diego State under another old friend: Chuck Long. From the San Diego Union-Tribune:
"The timing was off for him," Long said. "I felt bad for him because I know he wanted that job. He really was in line to have a good chance of getting it and he had to pull himself out because of his health. That was really tough for me because I know how bad he wanted it.
"When you see somebody want something so bad and it doesn't happen, that was a hard pill to swallow."
Long refers to Elliott as the "epitome of perseverance" and cites Elliott's valiant battle as one of the reasons he was quick to hire Elliott after becoming San Diego State's coach last December.
Elliott stayed with SDSU for all three seasons Long was there. After another brief stop at ISU, Elliott went to Notre Dame, coaching safeties under DC Bob Diaco — a brilliant young coach whom Elliott recruited to Iowa back in the '90s. Former Hawkeye safety Kerry Cooks (wouldn't you know it, another Elliott recruit) coached the cornerbacks as well, and the trio excelled, leading Notre Dame to the 2013 BCS Championship game.
Concurrently, Elliott's kidneys failed.
It's a byproduct of his chemotherapy treatments. When you fight back at death as ferociously as Elliott did, it takes pieces of you with it as it retreats. So during that undefeated regular season, there was Elliott in his office, self-administering dialysis, so he could keep coaching every. single. day.
Elliott has administered daily self-dialysis in the Irish's afternoon defensive staff meeting room -- using an IV pole nearly as tall as him for assistance -- while wearing a white mask and purple rubber gloves for cleanliness. The dialysis essentially flushes waste out from the stomach cavity through a catheter tube with a sugar water-like liquid, mimicking the duties the kidneys can no longer perform. (This type of dialysis is known as peritoneal.)
Each night, Elliott hooks up for an eight-hour treatment. During the day, he fits in a 40-minute session -- whether in a Notre Dame locker room in Dublin or a Target parking lot during a recruiting trip.
"With the mask on and bag hanging, anyone would look in the car and say, 'What the heck is going on?'" Elliott said. "You just do it and go. I've learned to not be embarrassed."
Fortunately for Elliott, his sister was a perfect organ donor match, and she donated a kidney to him in early 2013. At a minimum, he could finish the daily dialysis treatments he had been subjected to for the past 13 months—and, as he told reporters the following spring—the primary benefit wasn't pain relief, it was that it was easier to coach:
After Diaco went on to lead UConn and Cooks was hired by Oklahoma, Elliott's health forced him into an advisory role for Brian Kelly for the last two seasons. You do what you can.
Still, Elliott had been feeling good enough during the offseason that when Diaco was hired as defensive coordinator by Nebraska and needed someone to coach safeties, he knew exactly who to call. Alas, a few weeks ago, Elliott's health declined again, and Nebraska shuffled him into what they called an off-field role due to "unexpected personal reasons." That was June 20. By early July Elliott was in hospice.
RIP Bobby Elliott --- a great guy, friend and football coach. Ties together both Cy and Hawk. Think of him during this Sept's game.
— Randy Peterson (@RandyPete) July 9, 2017
Elliott leaves us at 64 years old, which is too young. He certainly wasn't ready to be done coaching, to stop doing what he was put on this earth to do. He will predecease his father, Bump, who is 92. 64 is too young.
It's easy and understandable to think of this as a cruel fate for Mr. Elliott, that these health problems took away things he deserved. For whatever it's worth, and that should be a lot, here's what Elliott had to say after McCarney hired him:
I never say, 'What if?' I don't dwell on it. I never have. Everything turns out certain ways for a reason. Not one thing that has happened to me because of this disease has been bad. I'm thankful for what's happened. Everything turned out positive.
And yes, it is unfair to reduce Elliott's life or career to a mere accounting of his maladies. Yet it is impossible to tell his story as a coach without including his relentless fight to stay on the sidelines.
Taking one more step back, whatever you credit for all of this around us — God, the universe, life, fate, however you call it — can't take away anything it hadn't already given us. The sadness that Bob Elliott is gone should be balanced by the joy that he was here at all, that he persevered like a champion for decades, that he made the University of Iowa, the college football world, and everyone around him better off for it. He won that fight for decades. May we all, if and when our number gets called. May we all.
Rest easy and thank you for everything, Mr. Elliott.