LINCOLN — Bob Elliott, a veteran college football coach hired by Nebraska in February, died Saturday night.
He was 64, and had been battling cancer for a long time — being first diagnosed in 1998.
Elliott coached 38 years with stops at nine schools, including Iowa, Iowa State, Kansas State and Notre Dame. He served as assistant head coach under longtime Hawkeyes coach Hayden Fry and defensive coordinator under Kansas State coach Bill Snyder.
In his final stop before NU, he spent five years at Notre Dame, where he worked with new Husker defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.
“Coach Elliott has been a father figure and mentor to me for almost 30 years,” Diaco said in a release. “During my life I have met few people that possess the amount of toughness Coach Elliott had, while also possessing the same amount of class. Coach Elliott had unwavering principles and that combination of traits put him in company with very few.”
Diaco and NU coach Mike Riley hired him in February to coach safeties. Elliott coached through spring practice, but he had to step away from that role in June, replaced by another former Notre Dame colleague, Scott Booker.
“Bob was a wonderful man with a great family. Bob has left an impact on and off the field that will be remembered for many years to come,” Riley said in a release. “In his short time with our program, Coach Elliott developed a great relationship with the young men in our football program and our staff. Our thoughts and prayers are with Bob’s wife, Joey, and his entire family during this difficult time.”
Elliott battled health problems for his final 19 years. He developed a rare blood cancer that led to a bone marrow transplant in 1999. The effects of that transplant led to a kidney transplant during his time at Notre Dame. He received the kidney from his sister, Betsy.
Elliott spent his final two seasons at Notre Dame in an off-the-field role as special assistant to head coach Brian Kelly. He thought his coaching career might be over until Nebraska called.
“I never dreamed I would be at Nebraska, ” Elliott told World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel in March. “Never dreamed Nebraska would be in the Big Ten, either.
“All those years I watched Tom’s teams play Oklahoma.”
Elliott coached against Tom Osborne’s Huskers while at Iowa State in the early 1980s. He coached at Kansas State when the Wildcats hung losses on Frank Solich’s Huskers in 2002, 2003 and 2004. And he coached at Iowa State in 2010 when the Cyclones scared Bo Pelini’s Huskers before falling 31-30 in overtime.
He knew another Husker head coach especially well: His uncle, Pete Elliott, coached the Huskers in 1956.
But Bob’s dream job for years was coaching at Iowa.
“Bob was an outstanding individual with the highest integrity as a person, and as a football coach,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said in a release. “Along with being an outstanding player and excelling in academics during his Iowa career, Bob was a dedicated coach and family man, always putting others ahead of himself. Bob touched the lives of many student-athletes, along with those he coached and worked with throughout his career.”
Bob’s father, Bump, was the Hawkeyes’ athletic director after a coaching career at Michigan. Bob graduated from high school in Iowa City and played for the Hawkeyes from 1972 to 1975, becoming an academic All-American. He coached for Fry from 1987 to 1994 and again from 1996 to 1998.
But his aspirations of succeeding Fry were derailed by the blood cancer, and Iowa hired Ferentz as his successor.
“Reality is a hard pill to swallow,” Elliott told Shatel in March. “It just didn’t work out. But it worked out for Iowa. They got a great guy.”
Elliott’s health improved and he became associate head coach at Iowa State under Dan McCarney in 2000 and 2001. McCarney was among the friends and family who were with Elliott at the time of his death in hospice care in Iowa City.
Elliott then became defensive coordinator for Kansas State’s Snyder from 2002 to 2005. Their Wildcats twice won 11 games and captured the school’s first Big 12 championship in 2003.
The 2002 Wildcats led the nation in scoring defense, were second in total defense and rushing defense and third in pass efficiency defense. The 2003 team ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense, pass defense and scoring defense.
Greg Peterson, a native Nebraskan who coached with Elliott at Kansas State, called him “probably as fine a technician and coach as I’ve had the pleasure to work with.”
“His work ethic, his work habits, how he treats people … he’s as good a guy as you’d want to be around, as you’d want on your staff, ” Peterson told The World-Herald in February. “He’s such a likable guy and he does it the right way. When younger guys on your staff see what he’s about and how he conducts his day-to-day business, he can’t help but make everybody better.
“And I know the years we coached together, besides having a big impact on the other coaches on our staff, his relationship with the players was phenomenal.”
Elliott coached Notre Dame’s safeties in 2012 and 2013, while Diaco was defensive coordinator. In 2012, Notre Dame went 12-0 in the regular season and played Alabama in the BCS national championship game. The Irish defense ranked second nationally in yards per completion and allowed the sixth-fewest touchdown passes.
Elliott was 63 when Nebraska hired him last winter, but he felt ready for another on-field coaching role.
“This is a young man’s game. A lot of people say that,” he said in March. “Because how can you relate to younger players? How can you recruit?
“I say that’s exactly wrong. Players want to be coached well, want a coach who cares about them, who’s in the locker room after practice talking to them. They want a coach who will help them grow and become better. That’s ageless.”
As he recounted his health troubles and career detours in March, he emphasized that an account of his career “isn’t a sob story.”
“What I hope that some people can take away from this, and my players can take away from this, is everybody is going to have things that go wrong, ” Elliott told Shatel. “My adversities haven’t been nearly as tough as some of the guys who played for me had, growing up in tough neighborhoods, family issues, losing a loved one. Those are things that are really, really tough.
“I just had to do what my doctors tell me, and put one foot in front of the other. If anything, my example is one of just keep going.”
Elliott is survived by his wife, Joey, and their children, Grant and Jessica. In a statement, the family said a celebration of life ceremony will be announced later.
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