By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Bobby Elliott made his living as a college football coach, but his job hardly defined him.
To his players, Elliott was much more than a coach.
Elliott was a friend and a mentor, and to some, like former Notre Dame defensive back Matthias Farley, he was almost like a second father.
Farley was among those who filled Hancher Auditorium on Saturday to honor Elliott, who died last Saturday in Iowa City at the age of 64 after a nearly two-decade long fight against blood cancer.
The event was called a celebration of life, and was for the most part as laughter filled the auditorium.
Dan McCarney told stories about his special bond with Elliott, which dates back to when they first met 46 years ago.
“He was my hero,” McCarney said.
McCarney had the audience laughing for parts of his fiery speech and fighting back tears during other parts as he reminisced about playing with football with Elliott at Iowa in the mid-1970s and about coaching with him at both Iowa and Iowa State.
McCarney also praised Elliott for being a master at overcoming whatever obstacles that life threw at him, which were many.
“I told him life was just not fair,” McCarney said. “But not once did I ever hear him say that.
“About tough times, he said you can make it your excuse or make it your story. Bob Elliott made it his story.”
Farley’s speech also touched a range of emotions.
He stepped to the podium, stared out to a crowd of mostly strange faces in a strange place and then delivered a passionate speech that brought him, and some members of the audience to tears.
Farley openly wept as he talked about how Elliott influenced his life on and off the field while they were together at Notre Dame.
He told a story of how the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley impacted both of their lives. Elliott used the poem for strength and for guidance and often encouraged his players, including Farley, to read it.
Farley once noticed the poem framed on Elliott’s desk during a visit to Elliott’s office.
“He asked me if I knew it,” Farley said. “I said ‘Yeah, it’s a great poem. I have the whole thing tattooed on my back.”
That drew laughter from the audience, but the mood changed when Farley talked about breaking his thumb against Oklahoma in 2012.
“I was kind of freaking out about it,” said Farley, who now plays for the Indianapolis Colts. “(Elliott) said ‘I’ve broken my thumb, you’ll be fine.’
“I had surgery on it. The first person I saw when I woke up was Coach Elliott.
“It’s one thing to tell somebody you care about them and love them. It’s another to be there when they need you to be there.”
Former Iowa defensive back and professional baseball player Bo Porter delivered a similar message that also brought him and the audience to tears.
Porter called Elliott the biggest influence in his life and he credits Elliott with convincing him to pick Iowa over Miami (Fla.) as a high football recruit.
Porter grew up in New Jersey and was a coveted defensive back recruit in 1989. He was close to committing to Miami, which was a national power at the time, but then Elliott convinced Porter to at least visit Iowa City.
Elliott believed that Porter would fit the culture better at Iowa, and so did Porter after visiting Iowa City.
What started as a player-and-coach relationship evolved into so much more between Porter and Elliott. Their unwavering bond could be heard in Porter’s voice as it cracked with emotion.
Porter credits Elliott for changing the course of his life.
Saturday’s audience was filled with a Who’s Who of former Hawkeyes, including Bret Bielema, Bob Diaco, Bill Inge, Bill Happle, Tim Dwight, Chuck Long, Kerry Cooks, Matt Hughes, Anthony Herron and Eppy Epenesa and his son A.J. Epenesa, who will be a freshman on the Iowa football team this fall.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz also attended the 90-minute celebration, along with his wife, Mary.
The seats were filled mostly with those loyal to Iowa, but Iowa State and Notre Dame also were represented.
Bobby Elliott’s coaching career spanned four decades and he had the rare distinction of being the associate head coach at both Iowa and Iowa State.
Wherever he coached, Elliott left a lasting mark and made friendships for life.
Elliott’s son, Grant, started the ceremony by telling the audience that it was a celebration of his father’s life.
And, yes, it was a celebration, but tears also shared the stage because a person loved and respected by many died way too soon.
Bobby Elliott squeezed a ton into 64 years. And judging from the audience on Saturday, he had everything in life but enough time.