It took 19 years before the most vicious of all opponents, a rare form of blood cancer diagnosed in 1998, finally defeated Bob Elliott. A member of Notre Dame’s staff, first on the field and then administratively from 2012-16, Elliott died Saturday night in an Iowa City hospice at age 64.
Shortly after the news, Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly tweeted out on his account: “Bob Elliott was in a class by himself — a great husband, father, grandfather, coach & man. He made everyone better & I’ll miss him dearly.”
2012-15 Notre Dame safety Matthias Farley tweeted: “To the man [whose] heart was always too big for his body, Thank You. You changed my life and I am forever grateful.”
A veteran of the coaching ranks for 40 years before his death, Elliott was hired by Kelly in the winter of 2012 during a huge coaching upheaval at the school — almost comparable to the one this year — following consecutive five-loss campaigns. Elliott was tabbed to coach the safeties while defensive backs coach Chuck Martin was shifted to offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach. In his role, Elliott also continued to serve as a mentor to defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who was a star linebacker for him at the University of Iowa in the 1990s.
The safety position was ravaged in 2012 with the graduation of first-round pick Harrison Smith, a year-ending injury to future captain Austin Collinsworth in the preseason and the loss of starter Jamoris Slaughter for the season in the opening minutes of the third game, also to injury.
Yet the rebuilding secondary became one of the top surprises during a 12-0 regular season that saw the Irish atop the polls and in defensive rankings before losing to Alabama in the BCS Championship. Senior safety Zeke Motta was named Defensive MVP (linebacker Manti Te’o was awarded Team MVP) after a roller-coaster first three seasons, while Farley, who the year prior was redshirted as a reserve receiver, thrived under Elliott’s tutelage.
In a released statement, Diaco lauded Elliott beyond him being a father figure and mentor to him for nearly 30 years
“During my life I have met few people that possess the amount of toughness Coach Elliott had, while also possessing the same amount of class,” Diaco said. “Coach Elliott had unwavering principles and that combination of traits put him in company with very few.”
At one time considered Hayden Fry’s potential successor at his alma mater Iowa in 1998, where he had coached since 1987, Elliott’s coaching plans were temporarily derailed when he underwent a bone marrow transplant that year in which doctors forewarned him that he would have only a 50-50 shot of surviving even with the procedure.
Not only did he make it through, but he returned to coach at Iowa State in 2000-01 and then was hired as defensive coordinator by Kansas State’s Bill Snyder from 2002-05. The 2002 Wildcats led the nation in scoring defense, were second in total defense and rushing defense and third in pass efficiency defense, and the 2003 team that won the Big XII ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense, pass defense and scoring defense.
However, the bone marrow transplant gradually compromised his kidneys. Two weeks after he was hired by Kelly on Jan. 21, 2012, Elliott’s sister Betsy, was deemed a match and donated one of her kidneys to help keep her brother alive. Yet Elliott’s main concern wasn’t about his mortality.
“My fear was that when I told Coach Kelly, he would think that I couldn’t do the job,” he said. “He didn’t blink. His experience with his wife [Paqui Kelly is a two-time breast cancer survivor] … he’s probably the best guy that could have been that position for me. He said ‘We’ll run with it and do what we need to do. You’ll be fine.’ He was awesome. I can’t imagine another guy like that.”
Behind the scenes that year, three times a day Elliott would close the door to his office for 40-minute self-administered treatments, and would be hooked up for eight hours every night on dialysis. Sometimes his IV stand had to be rolled into the defensive meeting room, and sometimes on the road he had to pull into parking lots and use the training he had received to deliver fluids through an IV into his stomach cavity, which would absorb the liquid and act as his kidney.
“The guy is incredible,” Farley told Blue & Gold Illustrated in 2013. “I don’t know how you deal with all the pressure and all the stress on top of not having kidneys the entire season… He never complained. He always had a smile on his face and always had high energy.”
When new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was hired in 2014 after Diaco was named the head coach at UCon, Elliott was shifted to coach the outside linebackers. In 2015 he became special assistant to Kelly in the football office, with a main emphasis on crafting ways to stop the triple option, which the Irish did successfully in wins against Georgia Tech and Navy during a 10-1 start.
Elliott and Diaco were reunited at Nebraska this winter after Diaco had been fired as Connecticut’s head coach and was hired by Cornhuskers head coach Mike Riley as his defensive coordinator. Elliott coached the Nebraska safeties this spring, but continued health issues forced him to step down into an analyst role in June, prior to his death.
Elliott came from a football background. His father Bump, who survives, was the head coach at Michigan from 1959-68, and his uncle Pete Elliott led Cal to the Rose Bowl in 1959, and was the head coach at Illinois (1960-66) and Miami (1973-74).
Bob graduated from high school in Iowa City and starred for the Hawkeyes — where his father was the athletics director from 1970-91 — in 1972-75, earning Academic All-American honors and an NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship, and even was a 1976 Rhodes Scholarship candidate.
Just this March Elliott told Omaha World-Herald reporter Tom Shatel that his career is far from a “sob story,” but more a blessing.
“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.”
Elliott is survived by his wife, Joey, and their children, Grant and Jessica.