Bob Elliott was an assistant coach for three different head coaches at Iowa State, and was on Hayden Fry’s Iowa staff for 11 seasons.
He was an assistant at Ball State, Kent State, North Carolina and San Diego State in a coaching career that dates to 1976. He was the defensive coordinator at three schools, including Iowa from 1996 to 1998.
But through all the moving around, all the experiences, all the highs and lows, he has found himself in a new place in 2012. Namely, on a No. 1-rated team that is playing for the national-title on Jan. 7.
Elliott is the safeties coach at Notre Dame. He left Iowa State last January to join Brian Kelly’s staff. A little less than a year later, he’ll be at a BCS championship game when the Fighting Irish play Alabama in Miami.
There are reasons why certain coaches keep getting job offers.
“He’s somebody that has a great deal of experience as a coordinator on the BCS level, incredible amount of experience, and he doesn’t have an ego,” Kelly said last week. “He wants to just fit into the staff dynamics. For us, that’s one of our key ingredients to success is to have a staff that puts their egos aside and really work on the development of their players.
“He’s done an incredible job.”
By phone last week, Elliott explained why he left Iowa State for Notre Dame.
“I loved the kids at Iowa State and (wife) Joey and I really liked Ames and the state of Iowa,” he said. “But this was a possibility to be part of something like what has come to pass, to have the potential to go straight to the top.
“It’s been a really unique experience. A lot of guys coach their whole lives and never get to a national-championship game or a Super Bowl. I’m trying not to get too excited. I’m trying to mix the enjoyment of the situation with the sober understanding of who we’re playing.”
The person who lured Elliott to Notre Dame is Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who played linebacker for the Hawkeyes in the mid-1990s. On top of that, former Iowa defensive back Kerry Cooks is a secondary coach for Diaco.
Former Iowa State assistant Tony Alford, a colleague of Elliott’s at Iowa State when Dan McCarney was the coach, is on Kelly’s staff. And, the Irish’s strength and conditioning coach is Paul Longo, who had that role at Iowa when Elliott was Fry’s defensive coordinator.
Diaco had an opening for a defensive coach because Kelly moved Chuck Martin from defensive secondary coach to offensive coordinator. He, Cooks and Alford lobbied Kelly to add Elliott to the Notre Dame staff.
“Bob wanted a certain kind of guy to fill the opening, someone with experience and with good chemistry with the staff,” Elliott said. “Since I had worked with Bob before and had coached him, and since I had worked with Kerry Cooks before and had coached him — they were GAs (graduate assistants) for me early in their careers — I thought the chemistry situation would be good, which has been true.”
Diaco’s name has been tossed around for head-coaching openings the last few weeks, but he can afford to be patient and particular. Elliott would certainly give Diaco a good reference. He said this: “Bob was always this: A brilliant guy. When someone can focus that intellect to the task at hand, you’ve got a superstar.
“He’s got a remarkably well-rounded skill set for a coach. He’s great with the X’s and O’s, but he’s also good with people and a great communicator. He has great, great confidence, a common trait with all successful coaches. He understands the game is about the players, not the plays.
“He’s also a great recruiter. You can check off every box. He’s not one of the young guys who masters the on-field stuff or the chalkboard, but isn’t as good with the people skills.”
As for Kelly, Elliott calls him “a great boss. He hires you and lets you do your job. He lets Bob control the defense, with parameters. He’ll do anything for you if you’re his assistant coach.”
Elliott wouldn’t call the Irish’s defense the best he’s helped coach, saying “We had some really good defenses at Kansas State, and at Iowa in the late ‘90s and maybe earlier. We had a couple of dominant ones at Kansas State that statistically were ridiculous, and Iowa as well. But this defense is definitely on a par with those, better in some areas and maybe not as good in some others.
“But this defense has done things under extreme pressure of the highest level, under the bright lights. So that may be the difference.”
Elliott knows about pressure and stress. In 1998, he was diagnosed with a blood disorder called polycythemia vera. He probably would have been the favorite to succeed Fry as Iowa’s head coach were it not for the disease that forced him to get a bone-marrow transplant the following spring.
What he went through in 1999 was hellish. Radiation and chemotherapy. The transplant itself. A month in University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. The prospect of a life without coaching in high-level football.
But McCarney hired him at Iowa State without hesitation in 2000, and Elliott eventually moved on to Kansas State, San Diego State, and back to ISU as Paul Rhoads’ secondary coach.
Now 59, Elliott is working for Associated Press’ Coach of the Year in Kelly and the Frank Broyles Award-winner for the assistant coach of the year in Diaco. A 12-0 team, a national-championship game.
“Five or 20 years ago, I’d never have dreamed it,” Elliott said. “Of course, I never dreamed I’d have cancer and some other things.
“I’ve just learned to fight every day, to put one foot forward every day and keep going. If you keep slugging away, good things happen.”
Here's a video of Elliott after a Notre Dame spring practice last April: