What makes an athletic department successful?
Coaches? Fans? Boosters? Money? Sure. All of those things matter. But they all have to come from somewhere. Sometimes, it's as easy as having the right person in charge.
Bump Elliott was the right person.
Chalmers "Bump" Elliott's resume borders on the absurd. Born to a father who attended Northwestern and Iowa. Enrolled at Purdue. Served as a lieutenant in WW2. Returned from war and became an All-American back at Michigan, in the same backfield as his brother Pete. Assistant coach at Iowa for Forest Evashevski's heyday. Rose Bowl-winning coach at Michigan. College Football Hall of Fame inductee. Associate athletic director at Michigan. Men's athletic director at Iowa for 21 years, alongside his equal in Christine Grant. National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics Hall of Fame inductee.
The things that mattered to Bump don't seem to matter today. That's a shame.
Hired Dan Gable.
Hired Hayden Fry.
Hired Lute Olsen.
Hired Dr. Tom.
Built Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Elliott did it all armed with the understanding that his coaches were executives, and executives don't need heavy management. Full pockets, of course. Guidance where needed. Upgrades? In addition to Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Elliott also oversaw a major expansion of Kinnick Stadium and the great-for-its-time "bubble" practice facility. Elliott's coaches were set up to succeed, and that was no accident.
It wasn't all perfect. Arizona hired Olsen away in 1983, and the men's basketball team still hasn't made the Final Four since. Fry was Elliott's third try at hiring a football coach. Elliott had two ranked seasons out of 10 at Michigan—and the second was his last year. Football's not always a sport that rewards dignity, and when Woody Hayes ran up the score on Elliott's Wolverines in the infamous "because we couldn't go for three" 1968 drubbing, that was enough for Elliott. He handed the reins to a young guy named Bo Schembechler and oversaw a smooth transition as associate athletic director. It'll come as no surprise that when Michigan got its revenge on the Buckeyes a year later, Bo made sure to hand the game ball to Elliott.
Bump gave the world 94 years. That's an incredible run. It has its drawbacks. He had to say goodbye to Schembechler in 2006. Thank goodness he never had to do the same to Fry. You know he lost his son Bob, who battled blood cancer and its complications for nearly two decades before succumbing in 2017. There weren't as many headlines when Pete died in 2013. Fewer still when Barbara, his wife of 66 years, died in 2016. The world is a darker, lonelier place when a brother loses his brother, when a husband loses his wife, when a father loses his son.
The things that mattered to Bump don't seem to matter today. That's a shame. This is a site run by foul-mouthed civilians, but we deeply appreciate that Bump never swore and that he served his country proudly. Nowadays, college sports uses the military for flyovers and sponsored applause sessions during commercial breaks. Elliott was a man of unflinching integrity. College athletics reward the most venal, morally ambiguous executives now. Elliott's sense of loyalty to his coaches seems frankly quaint.
Elliott never asked for it, but if the Big Ten is what it says it is—a conference where doing things the right way matters—it'll find a way to honor Elliott's legacy as a man who lived up to those ideals as well as anybody you can find, and the athletes in its ranks who best personify his legacy today. Let's not pretend one more trophy would be too many, you know?
Bump Elliott was a great man; let's always remember that. Let's also remember that anybody can choose to be great too. The world needs more people who do.
Rest easy, Bump.