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Monday, May 11, 2009
Elliott's poignant story tells of twice overcoming serious illness

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Getting a head-coaching job is sometimes as much about timing as coaching skills or any other factor.

An intriguing story by Randy Peterson in Sunday's Des Moines Register reminded me of that when it mentioned several coaches with Big 12 backgrounds who likely were interested when the Iowa job opened up after the 1998 season following the retirement of legendary head coach Hayden Fry.

Former Iowa defensive back Bob Stoops may have been one of the most attractive potential candidates. His connection with Fry ran deeply from his career as a player and graduate assistant coach there before he became the nation's hottest assistant coach while working under Steve Spurrier at Florida.

Terry Allen was another coach whom Iowa might have been intrigued with when Fry left, despite his lack of personal history with the program. His father, Robert, was well-known in the program. Robert Allen was a champion swimmer with the Hawkeyes who later become an assistant football coach and head swimming coach at the school. His son had developed into a hot commodity after leading Northern Iowa to a 75-26 record as a head coach.

But the hottest candidate of them all might have been Bobby Elliott, a former Iowa player who had chosen to remain at his alma mater to work with Fry through the years as a trusted member of his staff. His father, Pete, had been a Iowa athletic director.

At the age of 45, Bobby Elliott was on the cusp of earning his shot as the Hawkeyes' head coach when an illness cost him a shot at the job.

When then-Iowa athletic director Bob Bowlsby was sorting through his candidates, Elliott informed him he couldn't take the job because he had been taking daily doses of chemotherapy to control a blood disorder called polycythemia vera. Bowlsby instead turned to then-NFL assistant Kirk Ferentz to fill the job.  

Stoops decided to take a sure offer at Oklahoma, where John Blake had recruited the framework of a strong but underachieving team. With the addition of Stoops' coaching acumen, the Sooners claimed a national championship in less than two seasons.

Allen decided to take the Kansas job, which proved more daunting for him than expected. He was let go after posting a 20-33 record after five seasons.

After Elliott was cured, he became a respected defensive coordinator who ably served under Dan McCarney at Iowa State and Bill Snyder at Kansas State. He most recently served as a defensive coordinator under Chuck Long at San Diego State -- a staff that was let go after last season.

Peterson's masterful story relates Elliott's thoughts about coaching and how his illness profoundly shaped so many lives during another relapse of the serious blood disorder in 2001. The poignancy became even more significant as Elliott related his thoughts about facing death with his wife and two children.

Peterson received unmatched access to Elliott during that season. It was an arrangement that McCarney didn't know about.

He updated the story with a masterful lead, describing how Elliott arranged to have a rose bush delivered to his wife, Joey, on Mother's Day in 1999 as he was being treated for a bone marrow transplant on that day.

"It was the first thing I saw when I walked outdoors that morning," Joey Elliott recalled in the story. "He knows how much I love gardening, but not knowing what was going to transpire, he had a Mother's Day present arranged."

The story provided a lot of insight into the battling nature of Elliott as he dealt with a life-threatening illness and beat it twice. Even more interesting was how he dealt with knowing the illness denied him a shot at his dream job.

It made me wonder what might have been -- for Elliott, for Stoops, for Allen, for Ferentz, for Iowa State and for Kansas State.

And it also made me think about so many other coaches who aren't blessed with the right timing when they finally get their chance to be a college head coach.