LINCOLN — Fate, and its evil twin cancer, can be tough customers.
Once upon a time, Bob Elliott was going to be the Iowa football coach. He was going to replace the legend himself, Hayden Fry.
That was assumed, not assured. Fry never picked his successor, but had done the next best thing by naming Elliott assistant head coach.
Elliott was the natural. A popular former Hawkeye defensive back and longtime assistant under Fry. His dad, Bump, was the man who brought Fry to Iowa.
You would not have had to twist Bobby’s arm.
“Oh, yeah, that was always my dream,” Elliott said. “It was my dream to be the coach at Iowa. But in this business, your dreams and goals change all the time.
“Reality is a hard pill to swallow. It just didn’t work out. But it worked out for Iowa. They got a great guy.”
Reality came in the form of a rare blood cancer that required a bone marrow transplant.
Just as Fry rode off into the Iowa sunset after the 1998 season, Elliott’s career was put on hold. He never found out if he would have been the guy. Kirk Ferentz was hired and never looked back.
Elliott moved forward. He’s had nine jobs since 1998. He’s on his fifth stop.
Last Wednesday, Elliott smiled as he recounted his unlikely path, how the Hawkeye who could have stayed in Iowa forever ended up at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.
The coaches hallway in the football office was dark during spring break last week, except for the light at the end of the hall.
Elliott sat in his office, with Notre Dame binders in a book shelf, and family photos behind him. He wore a white shirt with a red “N.”
“I never dreamed I would be at Nebraska,” Elliott said. “Never dreamed Nebraska would be in the Big Ten, either.
“All those years I watched Tom’s (Osborne) teams play Oklahoma.”
Elliott stayed in Lincoln to help his wife, Joey, move their things into an apartment. This is their 18th move, he says. So Joey is a saint.
Bob isn’t so bad himself.
At 63, he’s the same age as coach Mike Riley. In the early ’70s, Elliott was playing defensive back at Iowa while Riley was doing the same at Alabama. Elliott’s position coach was a guy named Jack Harbaugh. Father of Jim.
It’s a small world. Elliott coached Bob Diaco at Iowa and now Diaco hires Elliott at Nebraska. Elliott used to come to NU to study practice organization in the 1980s. He hung out with Charlie McBride and George Darlington. Elliott just saw Darlington last week in Lincoln.
And as we spoke last Wednesday around noon, there was a knock on Elliott’s door. It was McBride, who was in town and wanted to stop by and see the old “new” Husker coach.
Elliott is one of the beloved figures in coaching, because he is genuine, because he can flat-out coach. Not the other stuff, the bone marrow transplant, the kidney transplant, all the hardships.
As Elliott says, “This isn’t a sob story.”
But it’s a really good story.
Six degrees of Bob Elliott
Elliott was born in Iowa City and he might have been born to coach.
His father, Bump, was the coach at Michigan from 1959-68. He would resign after the 1968 season, an 8-2 year — but the final game was a blowout loss to Ohio State. That was the game where OSU coach Woody Hayes was asked why he went for a 2-point conversion late in the game and said, “Because I couldn’t go for three.”
Young Bob grew up in the shadows of the Big House. His afternoons were spent watching Michigan practice.
“When we went to bowl games, I’d ride with the team to practice, tag along, instead of going to Disneyland and the other places the rest of the kids were going,” Bob said.
Bump was revered enough at Michigan that he was made assistant athletic director, and helped hire his successor. Guy named Bo Schembechler.
When the Iowa A.D. job opened in 1970, Bump moved back to Iowa. And though his first two football hires didn’t work, the third time was the charm.
Bump hired a folksy coach from North Texas named Fry.
“Bump knew who he was because Uncle Pete was the A.D. at Miami at the time,” Bob said. “The year before he had tried to hire Hayden but Hayden didn’t go.
“But he was No. 1 on Uncle Pete’s list so he told Bump how much he really liked Hayden. It really saved Dad.”
That’s “Uncle Pete,” as in Pete Elliott, brother of Bump and Nebraska football coach in 1956.
Meanwhile, Bob played for Iowa from 1972-75. He was an academic All-American and Rhodes Scholar candidate. He was headed for law school, then he got a chance to be a grad assistant at Iowa.
“I wasn’t really ready to leave football,” Elliott said. “That’s the story of all coaches. You just can’t leave it.
“I’m a history guy and I remember watching a documentary about World War II fighter pilots who, when the war was over, couldn’t deal with it. The thrill, the adrenalin, the lifestyle of being a fighter pilot, they couldn’t match it with anything.
“That’s how it is with coaching and football players are somewhat that way. They just don’t know what to do to scratch that itch.
“This last move to Nebraska is the quintessential example of that.”
Elliott got out of coaching for one year: 1995. He had been Fry’s secondary coach for seven years and wanted to be a defensive coordinator. But longtime DC Bill Brashier wasn’t going anywhere.
So Elliott accepted a job as the head of the Iowa Alumni Association. He liked the job. He had a new direction.
Then Brashier, out of the blue, retired. Fry asked Elliott to come back and be coordinator. He was officially pulled back.
He was ready to be a Hawkeye for life. And then he found himself fighting for his life.
“In 1991, after the Rose Bowl, my spleen enlarged,” Bob said. “I had too many platelets.
“Doctors went in to see if cancer had done that. No, it wasn’t that. But I had rampant production of platelets. They watched it for seven or eight years to see if it had activated.
“Finally, it did activate.”
Elliott said the main symptom of his blood disorder was internal itching. It drove him crazy. He couldn’t shower because any heat would set it off.
The itching went away. The cancer did not.
“We made the decision in the spring of Hayden’s last year (1998) that I would take chemotherapy,” Bob said. “And I would have a bone marrow transplant the following spring.
“I coached that season. Toward the end, I was run down.”
During that time, Iowa Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby (now Big 12 commissioner) created a special assistant to the A.D. for Elliott so he could remain on staff and keep his medical insurance.
Bowlsby recently told Sports Illustrated that Elliott “nearly died” then. Elliott said, “I wasn’t close to dying.” But he wasn’t coaching, either.
A year or two later, Elliott was healthy enough to get back on the coaching horse. And then he rode off.
In 2000, he got a call from his old best friend from his Iowa playing days, Dan McCarney. Elliott joined McCarney at Iowa State for two seasons.
In 2002, he moved to Kansas State, where he was defensive coordinator/secondary coach for former Iowa assistant Bill Snyder.
At this point in the interview, I had to ask Elliott if he remembered anything about the 2003 K-State victory at Nebraska.
“I remember it very well. (Darren) Sproles had a great game. We played really good defense, but the Nebraska quarterback (Jammal Lord) had a couple of wide open receivers. If he had completed one or two of those it would have been a different day.”
Elliott, in a Forrest Gump way, just happened to be on hand when Bo Pelini yelled at Snyder after the game.
“I had tried to calm Bo down,” Elliott said. “He was upset because he had taken the Blackshirts out and we had taken the first-team offense out, but Bill had put Sproles back in to set a record.
“Which, I guess, I would be mad, too. Bill wasn’t trying to embarrass anybody, but it looked that way.”
What was it like to coach for Snyder? Elliott said the offseason, not the season, was more of a grind than other places. He said when they were at Iowa, he always thought Snyder would be a head coach.
“Bill had a big hand in Iowa’s program,” Elliott said. “He was very invested in the Hayden Fry way. The programs were almost identical, all the way down to the architecture of the football building.”
When Snyder retired in 2006, Elliott followed former Iowa quarterback Chuck Long to San Diego State. Long’s tenure in San Diego last three years. Elliott stayed a fourth as an administrator.
Then it was back to ISU, this time with Paul Rhoads. Elliott didn’t know Rhoads. But Chris Ash, now the coach at Rutgers, did. Ash was Elliott’s grad assistant at Iowa State in 2001.
It’s like the six degrees of Bob Elliott. Everyone’s connected.
In 2012, Elliott was summoned to South Bend. Touchdown Jesus. His old linebacker, Diaco, brought him to help run his 3-4 for Brian Kelly.
They won a lot of games. Had a lot of fun. Then it happened again.
Elliott got sick.
The effects of the bone marrow transplant from 1999 came back in the form of kidney failure.
Elliott needed a transplant. He needed a donor, a perfect match. It turned out to be his sister, Betsy, younger by one year.
Meanwhile, Elliott was in charge of daily self-dialysis, using an IV pole with a tube attached to a hole in his stomach that flushed waste fluids out — doing the job of the kidney. He never stopped coaching, which meant doing the dialysis in a defensive meeting or in his car while on the road recruiting.
“I would do it during defensive staff meetings,” Bob said. “Those guys would give me hell. Bobby and those guys, they had a lot of fun.”
Elliott scheduled the transplant for signing day. He woke up and called recruits to let them know he was OK.
With Diaco at Connecticut, Elliott spent the last two seasons as special assistant to Kelly at Notre Dame. He thought it might be over. Then Riley and Diaco called.
“It was a possibility (that Elliott’s career was done),” Elliott said. “This is a young man’s game. A lot of people say that. 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.”
Isn’t it strange that Elliott never went back to Iowa? No, he says. Ferentz had the father-son defensive duo of Norm and Phil Parker, so nothing was open.
What about Nebraska? Elliott says he spoke to Frank Solich in 2002 about replacing Craig Bohl, but he said Solich seemed set on a guy named Pelini.
“I interviewed for several head coaching jobs, never could land one of them,” Elliott said. “I didn’t want it to define my career and I don’t think it ever has. That was not a sign of failure to me. I wanted to try out my ideas, as Bill Snyder did. I would have enjoyed that opportunity.”
I asked Elliott if he considers himself a survivor. He disagrees.
“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 said.
“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.”
A life well-lived, a career well-served, a road well-traveled. And, thankfully, no end in sight.