SOUTH BEND | For a few moments anyway, Bump Elliott couldn’t feel the raindrops, or maybe they were simply mixing with whatever he was trying to hold inside his tear ducts that Saturday in October.
Of all the mental bookmarks in his own iconic career in college athletics, being a bystander in Notre Dame’s 20-13 grinding overtime conquest of Stanford at ND Stadium 10 weeks ago somehow doesn’t figure to get lost in that vast sea of memories.
His son, Bobby, 14 years removed from a diagnosis for a form of blood cancer called polycynthemia vera, had always squeezed every drop of opportunity out of his second chance in life. Suddenly, though, the dreams, that seemed washed away in a fog of radiation treatments and a bone-marrow transplant that gave him a 60 percent chance of survival, were now chasing Bobby Elliott.
“My timing was really good in this case,” the 59-year-old Irish first-year safeties coach said earlier this month. “My career has not always had great timing.”
There were plenty of unexpected starts and stops and near misses. In 1977, for example, he missed by months working with a young, rising Kent State assistant coach who had starred in football at the school and as the Golden Flashes baseball team’s shortstop years earlier.
Syracuse had just hired Nick Saban to be its outside linebackers coach when Elliott was arriving. Yes, that Nick Saban, Alabama’s current head football coach.
Most inopportune in the timing department was when Bobby Elliott’s life-threatening condition intersected with the retirement of long-time Iowa head coach Hayden Fry after the 1998 season. The younger Elliott was the Hawkeyes’ defensive coordinator at the time and certainly would have been a strong candidate to succeed Fry. Instead, he had to step away from coaching, period.
“I never doubted that the bone-marrow transplant would work, even though there was a significant chance it wouldn’t,” he said. “Now today, the chances are way better, with research and medical advancements. I’m free of cancer — that’s the good thing.
“Now, there’s always side effects to those kinds of procedures and that kind of struggle. So I have my share, but everybody my age has their share of those kind of things. And then something like this happens. Years like this are few and far between. I appreciate everything about it.”
The Iowa job eventually went to Baltimore Ravens offensive line coach Kirk Ferentz, a former Hawkeye assistant himself who still holds the top Iowa position today. Bobby Elliott’s road back wandered through Iowa State, Kansas State, San Diego State and a second tour at Iowa State — all as an assistant — before landing at ND last winter.
Bump, 87, plans to be watching in person when this serendipitous chapter takes the top-ranked Irish (12-0) to Miami for a BCS National Championship Game matchup with No. 2 and defending national champion Alabama (12-1).
“It’s a wonderful thing to see,” Bump Elliott said. “I’m really proud of my son, with the way he’s handled things. He’s faced a lot of adversity and has not shied away from it. He’s been strong and tough, and I really respect him for that. I’m so proud to be his father.”
When asked if Bobby had converted him into a Notre Dame fan, Bump was silent for a moment, then laughed, then had his cell phone cut out — twice — when he tried to answer.
Intervention from above?
After all, Bump Elliott was a standout halfback at first Purdue and then a Big Ten MVP at Michigan after he served in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II for two years. He was later the head football at Michigan in the decade that preceded Bo Schembechler’s reign.
He is also the man who, as Iowa’s longtime athletic director, hired Hayden Fry to be the Hawkeyes’ head football coach in 1979 after 17 straight non-winning seasons at the school.
Elliott confirmed Saturday that he told Fry at the time that he would be the last football coach Bump Elliott ever hired. When a puzzled Fry asked Elliott what he meant, Bump said, “I don’t think they’ll give me a chance to hire another coach, so if you don’t make it, neither will I.”
In that context, how could the elder Elliott not cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame? The Fry coaching tree has taken root in South Bend. Besides Elliott, there are defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and cornerbacks coach/co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks — both former Elliott pupils themselves — as well as director of strength and conditioning Paul Longo.
Bobby Elliott’s piece of that, by definition, is safeties coach. But it’s impossible to tell where Elliott ends and Cooks begins. And you can’t extract the Diaco infusion or the job non-Fry disciple Mike Elston has done with a youth-laden defensive line that created pressure on opposing quarterbacks and took it off a rebuilding secondary.
“That’s the thing, ‘all of us” is the right term,” Bobby Elliott said. “Bob Diaco has really created a really good atmosphere. I’ve been in his shoes, so I know how really hard that is to create an atmosphere where everybody contributes and nobody needs the credit. When you have a staff that can be that unselfish, you really have something.
“I think our players see that and feed off of that. I think that’s one of the reasons we have great camaraderie on defense and on this team in general, because of the way our staff is.”
And now the area of the 2012 Irish that was most likely to separate this team from a BCS trajectory has become a strength.
“It was scary,” Bobby Elliott said of the defensive backfield once fifth-year senior Jamoris Slaughter dropped out of it three games into the season. “We thought we’d have a serviceable outfit last spring. We had three really good safeties coming back, so we thought have a pretty good chance to be good.
“We knew we’d be young at corner and have to work our way through that. But then when Austin Collinsworth, Lo Wood and Jamoris Slaughter all went down, that really threw a monkey wrench into the plan, and we had to rethink.”
But if those four first-year starters, including three converted offensive players, needed to find a template of what perseverance can get you, they didn’t have to look any further than their position coach.
“He doesn't have an ego,” head coach Brian Kelly added of Elliott. “He wants to just fit into the staff dynamics. He’s done an incredible job.”
All the while, Bobby Elliott stays connected to his roots — Fry and the man who sat through the soggy Stanford game, Bump Elliott.
“My dad is obviously the No. 1 influence in my life, professionally and personally,” Bobby Elliott said. “He was a great role model for me, and other coaches really, because he’s one of those guys who was able to show with his life that you can win at the highest level and still do it the right way.”
Funny, Bump Elliott saw the very same thing that Saturday in October through the raindrops.