Bob Elliott, whose 37-year coaching career included four years at Notre Dame, died Saturday. The former safeties coach was 64.
Elliott, the son of former Iowa athletics director Bump Elliott, was a three time-letterman for the Iowa Hawkeyes football team in the 1970s. He also was a catcher for the school’s baseball team in 1973.
Elliott is survived by his wife, Joey, and their adult children, Grant and Jessica.
His coaching career began in Iowa City as a graduate assistant in 1976.
Elliott, then 27, came home to Haweye State — but to coach the secondary for the archrival Iowa State Cyclones. Iowa State would lead the Big 8 conference in total defense and the secondary was fourth nationwide in pass defense.
In February 1983, Elliott had accepted a job as linebackers coach for the N.C. State Wolf Pack. But he then flipped to the rival North Carolina Tar Heels — and the opposite side of the ball — when he took over command of the wide receivers that same year. His stint in Chapel Hill would be the only three years he worked on the offensive side of the ball.
By 1987, Elliott was back in his native state and at his alma mater, coaching defensive backs for the Hawkeyes. Ironically, Elliott replaced Barry Alvarez on staff after Alvarez accepted as assistant coaching job from the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Elliott was a finalist for the head coaching position at Ball State in 1995. After he didn’t get it, he decided to leave football entirely and become executive director of the Iowa Alumni Association, which boasted a membership of 46,000 at that time.
“Coaching is remarkable, but it’s an unstable profession,” Elliott told the Associated Press when he accepted the job. “We don’t want to leave Iowa City. This gives us a chance to make a longer commitment.”
Elliott’s time away from football lasted just seven months. In late January 1996, Hawkeyes coach Hayden Fry named Elliott his defensive coordinator.
“The Saturdays were the worst,” Elliott told The Des Moines Register following the 1986 season. “I missed the games, but I really missed the interaction with the players. I came back reinvigorated for the job.”
Battles With Blood Disease
Following the 1998 season, Elliott learned he had a life-threatening blood disorder called polycythemia vera. He left the coaching profession, but was given an administrative position by then Iowa athletics director Bob Bowlsby so that he could keep his health insurance. Elliott had a bone marrow transplant the following April. And by October, Elliott’s doctor was encouraged by his recovery and cleared him to return to football.
Elliott’s offers were almost nonexistent, however, with many teams too worried about his health to gamble on a proven coach.
Enter Dan McCarney, a former teammate and fellow coach at Iowa. In March 2000, McCarney was coaching at Iowa State when he offered his friend the role of assistant head coach, in charge of secondary and special teams.
“In football, you talk about perseverance, resolve, guts. Well, he was living it every day,” McCarney told the Kansas City Star in 2002. “Talk about an iron will. ... Bobby Elliott has it.”
Elliott left to become the defensive coordinator for the Kansas State Wildcats in early 2002, around the same time Tony Alford — who would later become Notre Dame’s running backs coach — was re-joining the Iowa State staff. Under Elliott’s tutelage, the Wildcats defense was the second-best in the nation in 2002. In 2003, the team won a Big 12 title and appeared in the Fiesta Bowl.
By 2005, Elliott was rumored to be in the running to be Iowa State’s new athletic director — a position that would have put him in charge of his longtime friend, McCarney. Instead, McCarney resigned the following year and Elliott was reportedly considered as a candidate to succeed him as Cyclones head coach.
When former Iowa star quarterback Chuck Long took over as head coach of the San Diego State Aztecs, he worked his Hawkeye connections to pluck Elliott as his assistant head coach and defensive coordinator.
The Aztecs were terrible. Long was bounced. Iowa State reportedly considered Elliott for its head coaching position in 2009, but gave the job to former Auburn Tigers defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads instead. The following year, Rhoads brought Elliott on as secondary coach.
In early 2012, Irish head coach Brian Kelly plucked Elliott from the Cyclones staff and brought him to South Bend.
“I couldn't be more excited about bringing Bob Elliott to Notre Dame," head coach Brian Kelly said at the time. "At his core, Bob is an outstanding teacher and tactician. He has had great success developing top-tier defensive backs and his experience as a defensive coordinator will complement our coaching staff. Bobby has a long-standing relationship with Bob Diaco and Kerry Cooks so the transition to our staff should be extremely smooth. I know our safeties will love playing for him."
Two weeks later, Elliott learned his kidneys were failing — a side effect of his bone marrow transplant years earlier. Elliott would self-administer dialysis while working, whether it be in his office, in the film room or on the road. He faced eight-hour treatments every night, but never publicly complained. His health condition didn't cause him to miss a meeting, practice or recruiting trip.
"I haven't made a big deal out of it, because I just don't consider it a big deal," Elliott told Todd Burlage, in an article posted on UND.com in 2013. “Everybody in our program has had to show toughness and make sacrifices. It's not relegated to me, or any one person, or any one situation. Everybody on this team has to do that."
Elliott received a new kidney from his younger sister, Betsy, in February 2013.
Health Issues Continue
In March 2015, Kelly moved Elliott off the field into a “special assistant” role. Elliott was involved in player personnel decisions, analytics, defensive strategy, game planning and on-campus recruiting. He was perhaps best known for devising a system to beat option offenses. The Irish beat the Georgia Tech Yellowjackets and Navy Midshipmen in 2015 and the Army Black Knights last year following Elliott’s tutelage.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers — and their new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco — offered Elliott an on-field role as safeties coach, which he accepted in February. Last month, however, Elliott moved to an analyst position for “personal reasons.” Scott Booker, the Irish’s former special teams coordinator, took over for Elliott.