Former Notre Dame assistant Bob Elliott 'meant the world' to his players

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Joe Schmidt and Matthias Farley came together to say goodbye.

On Saturday night, when former Notre Dame assistant coach Bob Elliott passed away following a decades-long battle with a rare blood cancer, Schmidt and Farley were there. The Irish alums met in Chicago on Saturday morning — Schmidt flying in from San Francisco, Farley cutting short a vacation to Europe. From there, they rented a car and drove three and a half hours west to Iowa City, where Elliott was resting in hospice care.

They traveled across countries and continents for a coach that changed their lives.

“It’s so hard to put this into words,” Schmidt said, while waiting in an airport to fly back to California. “He was really one of the key influencers and mentors for me during my five years there. He was the ultimate player’s coach. I’m going to miss him desperately.”

Schmidt isn’t the only one. As news of Elliott’s passing broke on Sunday morning, social media was flooded with tributes from colleagues and former players. Throughout more than four decades coaching college football, Elliott touched lives at Iowa (where he both played and coached), Kent State, Ball State, Iowa State, North Carolina, Kansas State, San Diego State, Iowa State, Notre Dame, and most recently, Nebraska.

In South Bend, Elliott served as the safeties coach in 2012 and 2013 and the outside linebackers coach in 2014, then transitioned into a role as special assistant to head coach Brian Kelly in 2015 and 2016. He left to become Nebraska’s safeties coach under former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in February.

Elliott, 64, fought through bone marrow and kidney transplants, radiation, chemotherapy and dialysis, and he never, ever stopped.

“It’s almost like a rap sheet of everything he had to deal with on the physical side of things when he was at ND and before,” said former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace. “I remember him showing up to spring ball after he just had kidney dialysis, and he’s sipping on a big old drink while he’s out there coaching, still running around and yelling at guys to get them going.

“It’s like, ‘Holy cow, this guy is a machine.’ ”

A machine, a coach, a mentor and so much more.

“He was like a second father to me,” Schmidt said on Sunday night.

 ***

Elliott always knew.

Josh Anderson can’t tell you how he knew, but he did. Every time. Like clockwork.

Like magic, or ESP.

“Some days after practice you just feel beat up, especially for a walk-on,” said Anderson, a former Irish walk-on running back who was awarded a scholarship prior to the 2015 season. “You work your butt off all day, and after a few years it’s repetitive. But it’s like he could read your mind.

“He would come up and thank you and tell you that you were of the utmost importance and what you did today was extremely special. He’d say, ‘You’re one of the pieces of the puzzle, and if we didn’t have you, there wouldn’t be a puzzle.’ He’d say the right things at the right time. Coach Elliott meant the world to me.”

Elliott’s empathy was extraordinary. His boundless positivity set him apart. It pierced the armor of his players, forging relationships that transcended the game.

“He had an eye for details that was different than other coaches,” Grace said. “Sure, most know the details of the game, no doubt. You have to have that to be a good coach.

“But he could understand how somebody was feeling, just being in the room with them. He could be in a room with 30 guys going over tape, and he would pick up on someone’s emotions if something wasn’t right.”

It didn’t matter who you were, what position you played, how many tackles you did or didn’t make. Elliott always knew, and he was always willing to listen.

“Top to bottom, he didn’t care who you were. He cared about you exactly the same way,” Grace said. “It wasn’t just players. It was staff, managers — people that could be considered the lowest on the totem pole in the building. They felt coach Elliott was invested in them the same way he was with the big dog in the room, and that is a special gift.”

 ***

When Jarrett Grace graduated, Bob Elliott was there.

It was May 2015, and Grace was set to earn a degree in management consulting from the Mendoza College of Business. Throughout the day, Elliott kept calling — making makeshift appointments with Grace and his many teammates.

He didn’t want to attend one of their ceremonies; the 62-year-old coach was determined to make them all.

“He was running around all over campus,” Grace said with a laugh. “He wanted to make a point of shaking everybody’s hand and being there personally to congratulate them and let them know what an accomplishment that was to get a diploma from Notre Dame.

“He was always there, all the time.”

In good times, and especially bad.

After Grace’s right leg shattered in four places during a game against Arizona State on Oct. 5, 2013, Elliott was there — through two surgeries, 20 missed games and waves of crushing doubt.

“After I had my second surgery he was one of the first faces I saw when I woke up,” Grace said. “I was just frustrated all the time for a good stretch there with physically how things were going. I wanted to be able to play. He had that presence that could calm me down and get me back to center.

“He could provide you with vision and clarity to trust yourself and trust that there’s so much more to you as a young man beyond football.”

Added Schmidt, who missed the final five games of the 2014 season with a fractured and dislocated left ankle: “He was the first guy to come see me (in the hospital). He spent an incredible amount of time with me. His wife Joey, who is a second mom to me, brought me countless dinners. Her tex-mex lasagna is a thing of legend.”

The Elliotts (and the lasagna’s) legend extended throughout the team. After nose tackle Jarron Jones tore his MCL in fall camp prior to the 2015 season, Elliott visited him in the hospital. When safety Drue Tranquill tore the ACL in each leg in consecutive seasons, Elliott was the first coach he saw after surgery both times. The same goes for cornerback Shaun Crawford, who hosted Bob and Joey in the hospital after back-to-back season-ending injuries.

For Elliott — who was first diagnosed with cancer in 1998 — each of his players’ injuries were met with a unique understanding.

“I think he understood how scary it could be, being in that situation, and how lonely it could be when you’re isolated from the team,” Schmidt said. “He took it upon himself to be the guy that made sure you felt connected.”

Last weekend, Schmidt and Farley returned the favor. When Elliott’s prolonged fight finally ended, there was family at his side — and throughout college football.

“When you think about Bob Elliott, it’s overcoming adversity,” Schmidt said. “He beat back the disease time in and time out, never ever ever complaining. He was going through dialysis the entire way when we went to the national championship in 2012. He never once complained.

“He was a really unique guy. That quality of perseverance and tenacity is something everyone can model themselves after.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Former Notre Dame defensive backs coach Bob Elliott speaks with cornerback Cole Luke (3) during warmup drills on March 29, 2014, at Loftus Sports Center. Elliott died on Saturday at age 64. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ