Red-White Spring Game 2017

Safeties coach Bob Elliott speaks with a player during the Red-White Spring Game at Memorial Stadium in April.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — He's Bobby around here.

In Nebraska the time was so short, so cruelly short, we referred to him more formally because we weren't on that next level yet. He was Bob Elliott, veteran coach with an impressive resume and detailed knowledge of Bob Diaco's defense.

His inspirational story of persevering through illnesses and surgeries that would break many had been retold to Husker fans upon his arrival, but the people of Nebraska were just about to really see up close the kind of man he was. 

It is clear now it was going to be everyone's good fortune to better know Bobby E.

You know that scene in "Braveheart" where William Wallace walks in front of his men and tells them he's about to go pick a fight in the face of seemingly unbeatable circumstances? Former Iowa State coach Dan McCarney thinks of Bobby E. whenever he sees it.

"No matter what the odds were, no matter how tough it seemed, he'd stand up to it and be a grown man and lead all the people around him through the toughest of times," McCarney said.

Those who gathered Saturday morning at Bob Elliott's "Celebration of Life" ceremony weren't remembering Elliott as just some longtime coach. Elliott was spoken about as "a transformational coach" whose impact went far beyond some result on a fall weekend afternoon.

Matthias Farley told everyone about the first day he met the coach. It was at Notre Dame. Elliott had just been hired there and Farley was one of his new safeties.

He walked into coach's office, checking out Bobby's pictures. There was Joey ("Mama E."), his wife of 41 years, and the kids, and there was something else. A framed poem.

"I was just glancing at it, not really realizing what it was at first. And I just said, 'Hey Coach, is that the poem 'Invictus'?" Farley recalled.

Yeah, Elliott told him. Great poem. Ever heard about it?

"I was like, 'Yeah, I have the whole thing tattooed on my back.'"

The crowd laughed after Farley said it. He waited a few beats, then dropped the punchline, the same one Elliott delivered to him. The coach told him, "You could have just memorized it."

Farley read that poem Saturday, trying to hold back tears as he did. Written by William Ernest Henley, it ends with the words: It matters not how straight the gate. How charged with punishments the scroll. I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.

Elliott died July 8 at 64 from complications of cancer. His final coaching job, if only for a few months, was at Nebraska.

But it was fitting during the celebration of his life that the photo showed a young Elliott, with a great mop of hair, smiling, in an Iowa Hawkeyes polo.

He touched people in many places. But his connection with Iowa, where his dad, Bump Elliott, was the athletic director, and where Bobby played, and where he was a Rhodes Scholar candidate, and where he eventually was a coach ... that link will always be the strongest.

He was the kind of coach who had some of the biggest names in coaching here in Iowa City on Saturday morning to remember him. There was Bill Snyder, Kirk Ferentz, Brian Kelly, Bret Bielema and Bob Stoops. There were Husker assistants Bob Diaco and Scott Booker.

There was also Bo Porter, whom Elliott once convinced to come to Iowa over then-dominant Miami. Porter played both football and baseball for the Hawkeyes. He'd play baseball professionally. He'd climb all the way to being manager of the Houston Astros a few years back.

"When asked who was the most influential person in my life, without hesitation, it was Coach Bob Elliott," said Porter, who compared the coach to being like a father to him.

Later came the words from McCarney, who has known Elliott for 46 years and played with him at Iowa, and then had him on his staff at Iowa State after one of Elliott's recoveries from a serious health scare.

It's no coincidence, McCarney thinks, that Elliott's two years on his staff in 2000-01 were two of the best years Iowa State football has had in recent times.

"Grief is the price that we pay for really loving someone," McCarney told the hundreds gathered at Hancher Auditorium, just a couple of turns in the road from Kinnick Stadium. "It's been a lot of grief for all of us, and yet you have these mixed emotions and you just want to laugh. Because Bobby Elliott always had that smile on his face, and then the emotions that he would draw out of you."

It was a stirring talk, laced with humorous stories about how Elliott shot back against the toughest moments with a joyful spirit and sharp wit.

McCarney remembers just before Elliott joined his staff. Elliott had just had a bone marrow transplant. McCarney and coaches around him were trying to figure out all they could about it. Could Bobby beat it?

McCarney drove from Ames to Iowa City to visit him in the university hospital. McCarney and his wife had to put on outfits he described as "spacesuits" so no infection could be passed around. They were obviously tense. Their friend could be dying any day.

The friend sure didn't act like it, though.

"The first thing he says, he looks at us and goes, 'You guys look like Mr. and Mrs. John Glenn,'" McCarney remembered.

Smile. Bobby Elliott always made them smile.

When Farley broke his thumb one time, concerning him greatly, Elliott told the player, 'Oh, I've broke my thumb before. It's fine.'

It's one thing to say the words. It was more than words. Elliott was the first one Farley saw when he woke up from surgery.

Farley broke down as he thought about that. "He was probably the first person you saw when something bad happened."

Elliott was coaching linebackers in 2014 when Joe Schmidt was a senior for the Irish. This was the year after Diaco left South Bend. A new defensive coordinator was running a scheme that, as Schmidt told it, seemed to have people confused.

He remembers one time during a Tuesday practice the week Notre Dame played Michigan when the DC had installed 50 new plays for his guys to learn.

Schmidt sheepishly walked over to Elliott. "Hey, Coach, I have no idea what I'm doing."

The humility of Elliott was on display. He was just as uncertain as his player about what was going on, and he didn't pretend to know.

"Coach, goes, 'Joe, I can't help you today. Tomorrow I can help you. But today, I can't help you,'" Schmidt said. "I think for someone in a position of power to say that, to have that confidence in himself as a coach, as a leader, that's a model for me for the rest of my life."

The next day Elliott came back and had all the answers his confused players needed.

While Elliott obviously had a brilliant mind, he also kept some things in his life so simple, according to McCarney.

Ask him what car he was driving and you might hear him say, "Some damn silver car. I don't know." It didn't matter. A car was a car to him.

And while he was given his share of watches as bowl gifts over the years, it never failed that the watch he wore was usually some cheapie he picked out at Target before the season.

"Because it wasn't about what you had, it was who you are, and who you could impact," McCarney said. "And he was the best at that I've ever been around."

As he battled his illnesses, McCarney would occasionally bring up the unfairness of how such a good person could come across such bad happenings.

"You think one time he ever said, 'Yeah I know'?" McCarney said.

Everyone there knew the answer. Not one time. Not from Bobby E.

"Tough times, tough situations? Make it your excuse or make it your story," McCarney said. "Bobby Elliott made it his story. ... What a story he's left.

"What a story he wrote for all of us. What an example for all of us as we go on to continue our lives — however much time we have left."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.


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