I experienced first hand what made Bobby Elliott special

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Bobby Elliott

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Since his death last Saturday in Iowa City, Bobby Elliott has been in my thoughts.

We had drifted apart after he stopped coaching at Iowa in 1998, but I always felt a special bond with Bobby because he made me feel that way.

He made me feel important every time we crossed paths regardless of the circumstance. Bobby had a gift for that.

He was genuine. He was loyal. And he absolutely loved people and people loved him.

That will be apparent on Saturday when family, friends, former co-workers and former teammates all gather to honor Elliott during a celebration of his life at Hancher Auditorium. The event will begin at 10 a.m. and is open to the public.

I plan to be there for reasons both personal and professional.

Bobby Elliott was only 64 years old when he finally succumb to a rare form of blood cancer after a courageous and inspirational fight against the dreaded disease that lasted for nearly two decades.

Bobby touched so many lives before and after his health problems surfaced, and he had a positive impact on too many people to count, including myself.

I was in my first weeks covering the Iowa football team for the Iowa City Press-Citizen in 1992 when Bobby helped me get through a difficult time.

The Iowa football team had lost three of its first four games in 1992, so the mood already was sour when Hayden Fry held his weekly press conference on the Tuesday before the Michigan game.

I knew there could be trouble because I had recently written a column asking for Fry to provide some clarity about why star recruit Willie Guy was reportedly serving a six-game NCAA suspension. I had implied in the article that Fry might have been less than truthful when addressing Guy’s situation.

To say that Fry took exception would be an understatement.

Fry interrupted his report about the Michigan Wolverines and then uttered three words that I’ll never forget.

“Pat. Where’s Pat?” Fry asked as he looked around the room filled with reporters.

I was sitting in the back of the room, partly by design, and slowly raised my hand and said, "I’m right here, coach.”

Fry then let me have it.

“Son, you’re way off base,” Fry said. “You’re questioning my integrity and my honesty and I won’t put up with that.”

As Fry unloaded on me, I felt like one of those characters in a cartoon that keeps getting smaller and smaller.

Fry already had achieved legendary status when he called me out almost 25 years ago, so there wasn't much sympathy coming my way.

And looking back at what I wrote in the column, Fry had a right to be upset and was justified in sticking up for himself and for his player.

My principles were sound, but my tactics left something to be desired, to borrow a line from current Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta.

I was young, ambitious and painfully naïve.

Fry and I eventually made peace and he never held a grudge, which I appreciate to this day. Fry was willing to give me a second chance because that was in his nature, but also, I think, because he had coached my older brother at Iowa.

But still, it was tough and embarrassing being called out by arguably the most recognizable person in the state at the time. Some poked fun of me and got a good laugh out of it, while others offered their support.

Bobby Elliott did both.

I’ve thought a lot about Bobby since his death, including a phone conversation that we had shortly after Fry had lashed out at me.

Bobby called unsolicited to see how I was doing and to offer his support.

I remember him laughing and saying that I now understood what it felt like to be on the receiving end of a Fry tongue lashing and to join the club. Bobby said we now had something in common and then he told me to hang in there and keep doing my job.

Bobby was an up-and-coming Iowa assistant coach at the time, so his words meant a great deal to me. It was sort of like getting a pep talk from a coach.

I still remember hanging up the phone and thinking how cool it was for Bobby Elliott to have reached out to me. He wanted me to know that I wasn’t the only person to get under Fry's skin.

But mostly, Bobby wanted to offer his support to a young sportswriter who he barely knew at the time because that’s the kind of person he was, caring and compassionate.

Bobby didn't criticize my column or tell me how to do my job. He instead told me to learn from the experience and he said that Fry's attack wasn't personal. 

Bobby always greeted me with a warm smile, a firm handshake and with a question or two about how I was doing. And he always seemed sincere about it.

So if he could make me feel important, imagine how important those who worked with him and played for him must have felt.

I’ve thought a lot about Bobby’s father, former Iowa Athletic Director Bump Elliott, since the news about Bobby’s death broke last weekend. I couldn’t begin to even imagine the pain Bump must feel from losing a son.

If you know anything about Bump Elliott, it helps to understand why Bobby was such a quality person because the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.

Bobby Elliott was a great football coach, but a better person. We often hear that after somebody dies, but I was fortunate enough to experience it.