Life wasn't fair to Bobby Elliott

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Bobby Elliott

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Bobby Elliott was so close to achieving his ultimate dream of becoming the head football coach for his college alma mater.

It was widely believed that he would have succeeded Hayden Fry as the next football coach at Iowa until Elliott was diagnosed with a rare and chronic blood disorder in 1998.

Elliott had been on Fry’s staff since 1987, starting as the secondary coach and then rising to defensive coordinator in 1996 and associate head coach in 1998.

Elliott was popular with everybody around him, players, fellow coaches and members of the media. He also was the son of former Iowa Athletic Director Bump Elliott, who retired from that position in 1991, but still lives in Iowa City and is admired by fans.

Naming Bobby Elliott as Fry’ successor figured to be an easy and seamless transition, but it never happened because the same year Fry announced his retirement in 1998, Elliott was diagnosed with a form of blood cancer called polycythemia vera.

Elliott’s climb up the coaching ladder at Iowa suddenly took a back seat to his fight for survival, which sadly came to end on Saturday when Elliott died at the age of 64.

Elliott died in hospice care in Iowa City three weeks after taking a hiatus from his final job at Nebraska. He is survived by his wife Joey, son Grant, daughter Jessica, and by his father Chalmers “Bump” Elliott, who was the Iowa Athletic Director for over 20 years.

“No one should have had to suffer as Bobby has had to suffer from a health standpoint,” said former Iowa assistant coach Don Patterson, who coached with Elliott for over a decade on Fry’s staff at Iowa. "He had been forced to deal with so many things and he fought through every last one of them.

“But we also know that cancer doesn’t really care how hard you fight or not. It’s not really a fair fight. But if his attitude could win the day, he’d still be alive.”  

Bobby Elliott had drifted from the Iowa football program, but he never drifted far from Iowa City or from his Hawkeye legacy.

His health improved to where Elliott was able to coach again after having a bone marrow transplant. He had an administration role in the Iowa Athletic Department that paid for Elliott’s health insurance and helped him stay active.

Elliott returned to coaching in 2000 when his former college teammate, roommate and close friend Dan McCarney hired him as associate head coach for Iowa State.

Elliott also became the defensive coordinator at Kansas State under Bill Snyder in 2002 and held the position for four seasons.

He then moved to San Diego State in 2006 and worked as Chuck Long’s defensive coordinator before returning to Iowa State in 2010.  Elliott spent two years coaching the Cyclone secondary before moving to Notre Dame in 2012 to also coach the secondary.

Elliott spent four years at Notre Dame before taking a job with Nebraska. His time at Notre Dame was a struggle, though, because of health issues that had resurfaced.

Elliott’s kidneys were failing and he gave himself dialysis during his first year at Notre Dame while waiting for a kidney donor. His younger sister, Betsy Stough, proved to be that donor.

Elliott spent four years at Notre Dame before taking a job with Nebraska.

He never gave up on his desire to coach until his body finally gave up him.

Elliott was a fighter, a survivor, a motivator and an inspiration. He could’ve been bitter and felt sorry for himself, but he lived his life with dignity and with a specific purpose.

There had to be times when Elliott probably wondered why his life was derailed by health issues, but he never showed it. He just kept fighting and coaching the game he loved until it became physically impossible.

“Bobby was a coach for all the right reasons,” Patterson said. “He loved the game of football, obviously. He played it with a passion. He coached it with a passion. He had a real appreciation for young people and was in it for all the right reasons.”

Elliott was one of the first Iowa assistant coaches I became acquainted with after moving to Iowa City in 1991. He made me feel welcome and important, and that never changed.

Elliott made everybody around him feel important.  Recruits adored him because of that gift, and they trusted him.

It was awkward seeing Elliott coach for anybody besides his beloved college alma mater, where he played defensive back from 1972-75 and earned academic All-America honors in 1974 and 1975. Elliott was a candidate for a Rhodes Scholarship in 1976, but his desire to coach football was too strong.

He absolutely loved the game and he loved leading and mentoring young men.

“He was never worried about how much money he might make coaching football,” Patterson said. “I think some of the young coaches nowadays maybe that’s in their mind and that’s one reason they go the football route is they all think they’re going to become multimillionaires.

“But that’s not why I did it, and that’s not why Bobby did it.”

Elliott stayed the course until his cancer resurfaced about a month ago. His body had been ravaged by the disease, and this time, Elliott couldn’t overcome it.

I used to think of Elliott at times when the circumstances in my life seemed unfair because his situation always helped to put things in perspective.

Here was a person on the verge of achieving his ultimate dream, only to have it taken away by something cruel and beyond his control.

“I don’t know what to say because it’s just not fair,” said Patterson, who also has dealt with serious health issues, but now is healthy, retired from coaching and living in Iowa City. “I know in my own case, I was quoted as saying good things happen to good people. I’ve always felt that to be true, and over a lot of time, I still believe it’s true.

“But sometimes, bad things happen to good people, too. And certainly Bobby had bad things happen to him from a health standpoint. So it’s not fair. It doesn’t seem fair at all.”

Bobby Elliott will be missed by everybody he influenced in life, but his legacy will live on forever. He was a special person who thrived under horrible circumstances.

He was tough, brave and compassionate.

And he was loved by so many people whose lives were made better just from knowing him.

Rest in peace my friend.