Friday, January 27, 2012
March 1980 Sports Illustrated Profile of Jumbo Elliott
Nobody's Bigger Than Jumbo
Sports Illustrated, March 10, 1980
For 45 years, James Francis Elliott has been coach of track at Villanova, bringing home more silverware than he knows what to do with. And it's only a part-time job
This raw, wintry day James Francis (Jumbo) Elliott, 64, the Philadelphia millionaire, drives rather than walks through the yard of Elliott and Frantz, Inc. heavy-equipment sales company. A light snow has turned the back lot into a quagmire. "We plan to have it repaved next summer," Jumbo says apologetically. Elliott's car creeps past the monsters that are his stock-in-trade: fluorescent-green, 35-ton Euclid trucks, cherry-red Drott cranes, taxicab-yellow Fiat-Allis loaders— dense, inert vehicles nesting in the ooze. "The really big ones come on semis and are assembled here," says Jumbo. "Some of the tires alone are 10 feet high."
Elliott walks into his office, sits down at the desk and hums as he rubber-stamps his name on $26,000 worth of payroll checks. He comes in for only a few hours a day now, and signing checks is one of his duties. Nowadays the business runs largely on its own momentum, but that wasn't always the case. "God, no," says Jumbo, a gentleman in all things, but one who uses a dash of blasphemy for effect. Fifty years ago he was a stock boy in a grocery store in Philadelphia's Shanty-town; 35 years ago he was a foreman of a small construction company; 25 years ago he was a salesman for the company; later he became a partner in it; and eight years ago he bought out his partner. Now there are Elliott and Frantz franchises in three states, with 140 employees and annual sales of $25 million. On the walls of Elliott's office are photographs of athletes running and a painting of a great, somber, bearded man—God, obviously—peering out of the clouds and obviously displeased as a golfer moves his ball from behind a bush. Golf is one of Jumbo's passions. In 1934 and '35 he was captain of Villanova University's golf team. He was undefeated in his intercollegiate career, and he was urged to join the pro tour after graduation. Now Elliott belongs to several country clubs around Philadelphia and owns a condominium near the 13th hole of the Seminole golf course in Juno Beach, Fla.
A lean, almost gaunt man with a fleshy face that seems meant for a heavier frame, Jumbo is reputed to have a mighty tee shot still. "A friend of mine always said he'd bet I could outdrive anybody else who had wrists as skinny as mine," he says. Jumbo holds out his wrists and they are indeed narrow, delicate, decidedly un-Jumbo-like. (The "Jumbo" handle was not acquired for anatomical reasons. It was picked up in the 1930s; a man named Jumbo Jim Elliott pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies then. "Since I was a "Jim Elliott" too, I got the name and it stuck," he says.)
Jumbo's eldest son, James Elliott Jr., 33, vice-president/general manager of Elliott and Frantz, enters the office and pulls a pitching wedge from the bag of clubs behind his father's desk. Another son, Tom, 29, also works at Elliott and Frantz, as a vice-president. As James Jr. practices his backswing, he and his father discuss the political problems in Afghanistan and Iran.
World affairs are of more than passing interest to the Elliotts these days—one of their sales agents in Iran disappeared for a while during the revolution there. Upon resurfacing, the agent informed the company that $50,000 worth of their tractor parts were in the hands of the new government.
"Are we going to get caught on that?" Jumbo asks now.
"I already wrote it off," says Jim Jr., "but I've heard we might eventually get paid by some West German bank. You don't mind if we get it in Deutschmarks, do you, Dad?"
Jumbo chuckles. Such relatively small amounts of money are not terribly important to him at this stage in his career.
It is nearly three o'clock now and Jumbo is finishing work for the day. He gets into his Cadillac to drive the short distance to Villanova University, the small (enrollment 6,075), private, Catholic Church-affiliated university from which he graduated 45 years ago. It is at Villanova University, on Philadelphia's fashionable Main Line, that Elliott engages in what has been his "hobby" for four and a half decades. Like a comic book hero emerging from a phone booth, Jumbo, the successful businessman, family man, amateur golfer and lifetime Philadelphian, steps out of his car in the school's parking lot and takes on a new identity—that of the most successful collegiate track coach in history.
Indeed, if coaching achievement were measured in business terms, Jumbo Elliott would be no mere millionaire, but a Rockefeller, a Howard Hughes. In the last 25 years his Villanova track and cross-country teams have won almost 50 major championships, indoors and out: eight NCAA, three AAUs, one USTFF and 38 IC4As (the 105-member Eastern track association). During his tenure 300 Villanova athletes have won individual or relay championships at IC4A meets, 74 have won them at the NCAAs, 63 at the AAUs. Last spring Villanova won its 71st relay title since 1955 at the prestigious Penn Relays, far outdistancing the host team, the University of Pennsylvania, as the all-time leader.
Jumbo has coached 25 Olympians, who have won six gold and three silver medals. Either while at Villanova or afterward, 18 of his athletes have set outdoor world records and 44 have set world indoor marks. Last season alone, junior Don Paige set a world indoor record for an 11-lap track at 1,000 yards (2:05.3); sophomore Anthony Tufariello established an NCAA indoor mark in the 600 (1:09.5); sophomore Sydney Maree, from South Africa, set a national collegiate record in the 1,500 meters (3:38.2) and an outdoor NCAA mark in the 5,000 (13:20.7); and alumnus Eamonn Coghlan shattered the world indoor mile record with a time of 3:52.6. The record Coghlan broke (3:54.9) was held by another former Villanova runner, Dick Buerkle.
Jumbo admits to having a fondness for middle-distance men. Indeed, he has coached 16 Villanova athletes who have broken four minutes in the mile, a feat roughly akin to having coached 16 All-America halfbacks. One of those, Ron Delany of Ireland, won the Olympic gold in the 1,500 in 1956. Others, such as Marty Liquori, Frank Murphy, Buerkle and Coghlan, have been in the forefront of world-class miling over the last decade. The 1980 Villanova squad has four runners—Paige, Maree, Dean Childs and Amos Korir of Kenya—who have clocked sub-four-minute miles. Two others, Kevin Dillon from Canada and Carey Pinkowski, should break four minutes soon.
This is not to say that Elliott ignores his sprinters and field men. Eight of the nine Olympic medals won by Villanovans have been taken by sprinters (Charley Jenkins, Paul Drayton, Larry James), a hurdler (Erv Hall) and a pole vaulter (Don Bragg).
And the juggernaut continues to roll. Last year's Villanova team won the IC4A Indoor Championships for the 16th time and the NCAA Indoor Championships for the third time. In May, Villanova finished second to the University of Texas at El Paso in the NCAA Outdoor Championships. All but four members of that team are back this year. "Jumbo's had the horses before, but he's got depth now. This may be his best team ever," says James, gold medalist in the 4 x 400-meter relay and a silver medalist in the 400 in the 1968 Olympics and now the track coach at Stockton ( N.J.) State College, where Bragg is the athletic director.
Just as important to the school as Elliott's stats, however, is his very presence on campus. Without a man who could afford to coach for the love of it, Villanova quite possibly would not have a track program at all, let alone the success it enjoys. Like all private colleges today, the school is beset with financial problems.
"We're marginal," says the Rev. John M. Driscoll, Villanova's president. "To be honest, no sport is financially viable here. But in a competitive business like ours it is important to keep your school's name in the forefront. And the most fantastic press we get, year in and year out, comes from Jumbo and his teams. If it weren't for him and his peculiar genius, things would be very much different here."
For the record, Elliott now receives $10,000 a year from Villanova. When he first started coaching, as an undergraduate scholarship quarter-miler in 1934, he, of course, did not receive a paycheck. (He also coached the golf team as an undergrad because "there was nobody to do that, either.") After graduation his salary was established at $200 for six months of coaching—indoor and outdoor track and golf. "You've got to remember that this was only something I was doing after work," Jumbo points out.
After World War II, in which Elliott became a lieutenant commander in the Navy, his fee leaped to $2,500. For this he coached track, golf and cross-country and served as the trainer for the Villanova football team. "I got by fine," he says. "I'd found that in the heavy-construction business a lot of managers were in their offices at 6:30, 7 in the morning. By starting early I could make four good calls before the average salesman even got on the road. My territory was the Main Line, with two or three accounts in the city—nothing farther than 25 miles from Villanova. I never had any trouble making it to school by three in the afternoon."
In the late '40s the young businessman's track teams began to be noticed. Jumbo's first stars were George Guida and Browning Ross, both of whom qualified for the 1948 Olympics—Guida in the 400, Ross in the steeplechase. In 1950 Elliott coached a witty, balding youth named Fred Dwyer, now the track coach at Manhattan College in New York, who ran a 4:00.8 mile. In 1954 Jumbo coached his first black runner, Jenkins—who would win two gold medals (4 x 400 relay and 400) at the 1956 Olympics while only a sophomore at Villanova.
A dynasty was beginning, and Elliott decided it was time to look for on-the-job help. He went to the university to see about hiring an assistant. Money, as always, stood in the way. Undaunted, Jumbo went out and hired an assistant coach at $5,000 a year, double his own salary. The assistant, Jim Tuppeny, later became track coach at Penn. "I was making big goddamn bucks selling, then," Jumbo explains. "So I just paid the assistant myself. It was a tax write-off, nothing."
Finally, in 1969, the university, perhaps out of embarrassment at having what was probably the lowest-paid major-power track coach in the nation, demanded that Elliott accept a salary of $10,000. The move was made largely to set a precedent. "In case," as Jumbo puts it, "they might have to hire another coach after I'm gone."
But Elliott did not need, or particularly want, the extra cash. As an officer of the Villanova Development Council he promptly gave all (much more than all, is the rumor) of the raise back to the school. "If I ever had to quit coaching it would tear my heart out," he says. "I like people. I love track men. Obviously, I didn't get into it for the money."
It is this generosity toward his alma mater that annoys some of the other coaches. "The man has a name like Lombardi in football," groans Frank Sevigne, the track coach at the University of Nebraska. "But what's really so irritating is that Jumbo is that successful, and it's only part time."
Jumbo walks down the hall of the aging Villanova field house, one of those drafty brick and tile structures that undoubtedly looked modern back when basketball players wore high-tops and the running one-hander was considered radical. Clad in a three-piece business suit, white shirt, dark tie and black wingtips, he is himself a throwback to another, less jivey era. Medallions, flowered disco shirts and leisure suits will remain the province of other, hipper coaches. Elliott, the old-school Irish Catholic, believes in dignity as he knows it. "Do you remember how John Wooden used to coach at UCLA?" he asks. "Every now and then he'd stand up, and once or twice he'd say something. I understand that. These new coaches—particularly in basketball—my God, they're madmen."
At times—such as when he is standing still, deep in thought—Jumbo looks older than he is, somewhat pale and fragile. But his speedy, long-limbed gait is an indication that youth still lurks within. Split high, like a good hurdler or quarter-miler (he ran a 47.4 in 1935 and probably would have made the 1936 Olympic team except for an injury), the 5'11", 160-pound Elliott claims it is "the working with the lads" that keeps him young. "I know men in their 60s who are so old I don't even want to be around them," he says. For the last decade or so recruiters from other colleges have warned high school athletes that if they went to Villanova they would end up running for a different coach, the implication being that Elliott was due for retirement. But Father Driscoll has said Jumbo can coach "as long as he wants."
"Those retirement stories," says Jumbo, shrugging. "I've heard them every spring for 20 years. All I can say is, retire to what—a hole in the ground?"
Even the crowded, dingy confines of the field house (it is not a field house in the true sense of the word since there is no indoor track or field area; Villanova's wooden "indoor" track is outside) seem to put life into Elliott's stride. "People jog all through this building," he says. "The other day I was coming out of the men's room and some great big guy hit me and knocked me flying. This has to be the best-used facility in the world."
He says this with amusement and pride. For years he has asked the university for a new track, perhaps even a real locker room (the dressing room is also a hallway), but it's not imperative that he get them. The contrast between Villanova's archaic athletic facilities and the success of his teams appeals to Jumbo's sense of humor and his up-by-the-bootstraps philosophy. Visitors usually ask what his teams do when snow blankets the "indoor" track. "We just give the boys shovels and put them to work," he replies. "It's good for them."
In his office, which he shares with two assistant coaches, Jack Pyrah and Elliott Baker, Jumbo stretches out and puts his feet up on his desk. Pyrah and Baker are also part-time coaches, having full-time jobs elsewhere—Pyrah with the university, Baker in the Philadelphia school system. Jumbo looks over his head to where a large brown stain has discolored the ceiling. He stares at it a while, pondering its significance.
"What's that?" he asks.
The room, which invariably gets crowded once Jumbo arrives, now includes all three coaches, student manager Ray Engler (dispensing the mint candy that Jumbo calls "vitamins"), a secretary, several Villanova runners and two at-large students who have wandered in to use the phone.
"It's a leak," says Baker. "Relax, Jumbo, we'll get it fixed." Behind his hand he adds, "Next year."
The talk is loud and lively. Jumbo thrives on talk, in pubs, restaurants, arenas, everywhere. " Mr. Elliott will not go to lunch by himself," says Paige, his latest star. "If he hasn't found anybody to go with him by noon, he'll come over to campus and grab an athlete and say, 'Come on, let's eat.' "
Freshman sprinter Carlton Young, who is nursing a muscle pull, enters the chaos and, finding all the chairs taken, lies down on Jumbo's desk to talk with the coach about schoolwork. Considered one of the best young runners in the nation—he had a 9.4 100 and a 20.9 220 as a Philadelphia high school junior—Young is also a top student, with a first-semester 3.9 average in pre-med courses. Though it might appear otherwise, there is nothing disrespectful about Young's posture. It reflects expediency, informality and friendship, all of which Jumbo understands and advocates.
The office is chockablock with trophies and plaques—on window ledges, on the walls, under papers, piled up, buried, forgotten. Jumbo is asked if these comprise all the Villanova track trophies. "God, no," he cries in mock chagrin. "They're all over campus. I don't know how many of them there are. Too many." One recent night Jumbo returned home and was greeted by his 85-year-old uncle, Lou, who lives with Jumbo's family in nearby Haverford. "Here, Jim, look what I found in the basement," Lou said, holding up a tarnished metal plaque proclaiming Ron Delany to be a member of eight winning Penn Relays teams.
"Where the hell did you find that!" cried Jumbo, pretending to back up, as if Villanova's victory hardware were pursuing him, even perhaps multiplying like seedpods gone wild somewhere in his cellar.
Not for a minute, however, should anyone believe that Jumbo Elliott doesn't like to win. He loves to clown around. "They fired that Arizona football coach for slapping a kid's helmet," he says one day in the office to Pyrah, who is busy on the phone, "but can they fire you for slugging an assistant coach? For beating on this fat S.O.B.?" And Jumbo pummels Pyrah's midsection while the beleaguered assistant, still talking on the phone, struggles for calm. But his concern for his runners and their victories is not so lighthearted.
He prides himself on doing what's best for his boys and, more often than not, that means getting them home in first place. He'll fight for those wins. In 1970 Villanova won the NCAA Cross-country Championships by one point over Oregon after an irate Elliott used film to prove that one of his runners finished 62nd, not 67th, as the officials had ruled. Near the end of the 1978 IC4A Outdoor Championships, Jumbo realized that Villanova could win the meet if his runners finished 1-2-3-4 in the 1,500 (an unprecedented feat), finished first in the 5,000, and then won the 4 x 400 relay, the final event. Jumbo made some lineup changes, explained the situation to his boys, and Villanova beat Maryland 99-98 for the title.
Believing that hard work followed by just reward builds character, Elliott worries now about his boys not being able to participate in the 1980 Olympics. He figures he has a dozen former or current athletes who could qualify for the Moscow Games. "But it hasn't changed anything for me, really," Jumbo adds. "I'll still try to get the boys in the best shape I can."
This approach is shared, as one would expect, by Elliott's athletes. "It's not going to kill me if the United States doesn't compete," says Paige. "There are a lot of meets in Europe after the Olympics and everybody will be at those. If you can beat an Olympic medalist then, well, that's not too bad."
One afternoon not long ago. Jumbo watched Maree run some stretch-out laps. Maree wouldn't be going to the Olympics regardless of a boycott—South Africa is banned because of its apartheid policy—nor is he allowed to compete in international meets or in any meets in which foreigners not enrolled in U.S. schools are involved. The tragic irony is that Maree is black.
Last season Maree ran several of the best middle-distance times in the world. He would like to become a U.S. citizen, but to be eligible he must reside in this country five years and he has been here only three. For an athlete whose skills could peak at any moment, two years is a long time to wait. Barring an Act of Congress or a change in South Africa's racial policies, that is what he must do. "It breaks me in a way," Maree has said. "But it builds me in a way. I'm able to take punishment."
Jumbo steps onto the splintering board track. A few hundred yards away is Goodreau Stadium, in which the school's quarter-mile outdoor track is situated. In a time when many high schools have expensive all-weather tracks, the one at Goodreau is still cinders.
Villanova doesn't belong to a conference in track and has no dual meets, so its inadequate facilities are not as great a liability as they might seem. Indeed, they are of virtually no concern to the middle-and long-distance men. "Facilities just aren't that important," says Liquori. "A miler can run anywhere. Kenyans get by without any tracks whatsoever."
It's harder on the field men, of course, which is why Villanova usually does poorly in those events. "When Don Bragg was here, we had a sawdust pole-vault pit that used to freeze solid in the winter," says Jumbo. " Bragg used to get a shovel and chop it up so he could jump. Of course, you don't get many kids like Bragg anymore."
Which probably is all right with Elliott. Some speculate that it was because of the excitable Bragg—who gave Tarzan yells before he charged down the runway and, according to Jumbo, could eat "fifteen barbecued chickens and out-arm-wrestle any football player at Villanova"—that Elliott began concentrating on runners. At any rate, Baker now handles the field men.
Jumbo watches as Maree circles the track. The troubled young man is a patterned, precise runner. If a glass of ice cubes were placed on his head there wouldn't be a clink as he glided down the straightaways. Still, Jumbo sees flaws.
"Hey, Syd, twist your arms just a little on the turns," he yells.
Maree circles the track again.
"Like this?" he yells, without moving his head or changing expression.
"Yeah! Good!" cries Jumbo as the dark figure runs on.
People in the track world are always asking for the secret of Elliott's coaching success. In fact, his training concepts are simple and mundane—too basic for those who desire an exotic formula. "Run, eat, sleep," says Jumbo. Liquori says, "At clinics, people can't believe he's being truthful. But he is."
Elliott doesn't care for fancy, "scientific" approaches to the sport. "I don't measure lung capacity or any of that stuff," he says. "What can I do about it? The only special technique I have is my own personal psychology. I stress the efficient operation of body movement, and I have my runners do a lot of repeat work—repeat quarters or 220s or halves. But each person is different. If you have a runner as naturally gifted as, say, that hurdler, Nehemiah, the way you coach him is to not foul him up. Mostly you try to keep the boys' frames of mind up."
Jumbo's vast experience—the fact that he has seen it all—comes into play here. He knows when to push a runner and when to lay off. This is the psych business, closing the sale. "A typical coach will say, 'Give me 15 repeat quarters in 60 seconds,' " says Liquori. "And of course nobody can do it, so afterward you feel down. Jumbo, on the other hand, will say, 'O.K., we're doing 10 quarters in 60 today.' Everybody does it and they say, 'Hey, let's do more.' Jumbo will say, 'No, go on in,' but maybe one day he'll say, 'O.K., give me two more,' and everybody will do those two and go in feeling great, like world-beaters. He'll do things like that, sacrifice a litle physical conditioning for mental conditioning."
One thing Elliott tries not to do is to get greedy, push runners into places where they don't belong. For two years he had Mark Belger, a 1978 graduate, and Paige on his team at the same time. Both were world-class half-milers, yet he never ran them head to head. "Why force the issue?" he says, knowing that a loss by either one might have been ruinous to that runner's development.
"It's like my business," says Jumbo. "Sometimes I'll talk to a manager who isn't being straight with me, who says yes, definitely, he wants to buy one of our tractors. Then I'll go back to finish the deal, and he says he went out and bought a Caterpillar instead. I don't force the issue. I keep myself from getting mad. I say, 'I hope it works out real well for you.' You have to think about the long run."
"The thing I remember most about Jumbo's practices is that they were a lot of fun," says Dwyer, who as a rival coach is still one of Elliott's good friends. "Jumbo used to stutter a little, and in practice I'd be on my way to a 60-second lap in the mile and he'd want me to slow down or sprint and he'd call out, 'Si-si-si....' I'd stop and say, 'Si-si-si what?' And then he'd chase me around the track. You need light moments like that, because running itself requires so much discipline."
Elliott has always understood the need for occasional levity, in life as well as running. One of his catch phrases is "stop and smell the roses." He once advised the intense Liquori to spend 20 minutes a day smiling into a mirror.
Of course, a major reason for Elliott's success is the sheer amount of rare talent he has brought to Villanova, getting the great ones and letting them help each other. "Practices were always like races," recalls James. Elliott admits that track recruiting is simple: "You just look for the best times." For a man of Jumbo's stature, getting the blue-chippers to enroll is a breeze, too. "Well, let me say that it's much easier than selling a quarter-million-dollar truck to a man who doesn't want one," he says.
In the last two decades, Elliott remembers only one Villanova track man flunking out, and none has transferred to another school. He doesn't try to recruit athletes from the South or the West because he knows they won't enjoy the Pennsylvania winters. "I want my runners to be happy," he says.
However, foreign students from a variety of climes have seemed happy enough at Villanova. Ever since Guida and Ross met quarter-miler Jim Reardon at the 1948 Olympics and persuaded him to attend the school, Villanova has had a link with the best Irish runners. The Africans go to Villanova because of the school's international reputation.
"You know, I didn't make a single phone call to South Africa to get Maree," says Jumbo. "He was in the U.S. the summer after high school and his sponsor suggested Villanova to him, and the next thing I knew, he was here."
Once at Villanova, regardless of race or nationality, no runner can fail to respond to Elliott's genius for perfect timing and shrewd motivation. Nobody gets athletes up for meets like Jumbo.
As a freshman James was a frustrated intermediate hurdler. His steps were inconsistent and his concentration was poor. When he was a sophomore, Elliott had him training for the 600 as well as the hurdles, which only compounded his dissatisfaction. Then, just before that year's NCAA Indoor Championships, Jumbo approached him and said, "Forget it, champ. You're running the 440."
"He made me so happy I could have kissed his feet," recalls James. "I exploded from those blocks." Even though running from the outside lane, James shattered Theron Lewis' national record by nearly a second. His NCAA-record 47 flat, set 12 years ago, still stands.
Elliott also stresses discipline. Not the boot-camp discipline of a Woody Hayes, but the conservative discipline of a businessman. "They need some," Jumbo says, "for the years after school, when they have to submit to the whims of a boss."
"He likes you to have that nice clean 'American' look," says senior Keith Brown, a black sprinter from the Baltimore ghetto. "I like a 'stache-and-'burns look, but when I came in as a freshman, he said, 'Shave!' And no long socks or anything like that, either. I said, 'What!' But now I understand. He knows employers come to our meets, too, and he wants us to be respected as athletes and students."
When Jumbo is in doubt, he pauses and ponders. As he watched Delany set a world mile record 25 minutes after eating a hot dog. Jumbo realized there was a limit to his knowledge. "The great thing is, he knows there are things he doesn't know," is the way Paige puts it. That coachly humility may contribute to the fact that so many of Elliott's athletes continue to perform well once they are out of school.
"A lot of coaches want to be the guru," says Liquori. "But by the end of your sophomore or junior year Jumbo expects you to be able to coach yourself. And you can. European and Communist coaches can't believe that people like Eamonn and I actually coach ourselves."
There is a certain uniformity, a sedate, genteel quality about virtually all of Elliott's athletes, past and present, as though the navy blue and white Villanova track uniforms are the pupal stages of Brooks Brothers suits. In exciting times one could almost call it a dullness. But that would imply that the athletes lack intelligence or enthusiasm, which isn't true, either. Villanova runners can be wild and crazy guys when the mood strikes them. Paige, who lists "girls" as his favorite hobby, recalls that when he was being recruited, Jumbo had to leave for a while to bail some of his track men out of jail, where they had been immured for some minor offense.
"Everybody has Mr. Elliott's phone number memorized or in his wallet," says Paige. "He always says, 'If you get thrown in jail, call me first.' "
Overall, though, Jumbo's athletes are quality people who do well. The track team's grades are always above the Villanova average, and Villanova is a strong school academically. The list of former runners who are now successful lawyers, doctors and businessmen is impressive. "That is something the mothers who send their kids to school think about," says Liquori, now the president of a large athletic-store chain.
In truth, Elliott has merely been molding men in his own image. His father, who read meters for a gas company, died when Jumbo was 3, leaving him to work his way up and out of Shantytown. "Nothing was given to me," he says. He still recalls the Depression days with dread. "Young people don't know what it was like," he says often. Even his track career started at the bottom. He ran his first quarter mile as a high school junior in 56 flat, and then was violently ill the rest of the day.
Elliott is conscious of money and material things, but primarily as markers, objects good to acquire and to have somewhere—like those damned trophies—but not to attach special meaning to. He'll show you his new white Continental Mark VI and his lovely three-fireplace, slate-roofed home and the blue Eldorado in the garage. But ask him how many rooms there are in the house and he says he has no idea.
Early in life Jumbo found his salvation—sales. "No matter what you do, life is selling," he says. "Selling yourself, selling a program, selling this, selling that." He brought the concept to track and it has paid off handsomely for him. Twice he was asked to coach at USC, a school with a lavish athletic budget, but he refused because he felt his salesmanship was better suited to Villanova. He has been there longer than any teacher, coach or dean. Three of his four children have graduated from Villanova. In 1977 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the school. He is Villanova track. Athletes perform for him.
Not that everything has always gone right for him. There were times in the turbulent late 1960s when his business approach did not go over well with some of the more activist athletes. But it seemed almost nobody over 30 was right then. There have been times when Jumbo hasn't completely understood some of his young men. One of those was Bragg, who set a world record in the pole vault and then went to Hollywood to try out for Tarzan. Bragg didn't get the part, and Elliott didn't understand his ambition, although he was well aware of it.
"When did I first realize Bragg was interested in Tarzan?" says Jumbo. "Well, the day we recruited him he was in his backyard in New Jersey with a lot of ropes up, swinging from tree to tree. I guess that was a good indication."
The only goal that has eluded Elliott is the post of head U.S. Olympic track and field coach. Several times he seemed likely to get it, but was passed by. "Politics," Jumbo says.
But for the most part, nary a cloud worth mentioning shadows the sweet, structured life of Jumbo Elliott. At track meets he usually sits up in the stands, sometimes with his wife and children, sometimes reading a golf magazine, mentally sharpening his swing. He knows everybody, and young coaches and runners continually stop by to chat. "Jumbo is more than a coach," says Father Driscoll. "He's an educator."
At the U.S. Olympic Invitational at Madison Square Garden in late January, Jumbo sat quietly in the first deck of seats with a group of friends. Like the other spectators, he became more animated as the time for the 1,000-meter run, featuring Paige and Belger, approached. The two had met only once before, in a 1,000-yard race in last year's Millrose Games. Paige won, setting his world record.
"They may be the two best indoor runners ever at this event," Jumbo said. "You have mixed emotions but, of course, you're for the kid you've got now."
As the race began, both Paige and Belger hung back; then they surged ahead with two laps to go. Belger kicked, but Paige kicked harder and came home first in 2:21.6, .4 second ahead of his former teammate. Jumbo smiled. It was a nice race. Jumbo likes nice races, particularly those with slam-bang, come-from-behind finishes—especially those that involve relays, groups of runners, the whole Villanova team. Such a feast occurred at last year's NCAA Indoor Championships in Detroit.
Twenty-fifth in the team standings with only two points after the first day of competition, Villanova began to make its move with six events to go on the second and final day. Tufariello won the 600, the Villanova distance medley team placed third, Paige won the 1,000. Then, in the mile, Maree and Korir finished second and third behind meet-leading UTEP's Suleiman Nyambui. But their combined 14 points were five more than UTEP got for Suleiman's first. With only the mile relay to go, it was apparent that if Villanova won that event, the Wildcats would win by a point.
Jumbo, sitting on a folding chair outside one of the turns, did not gather his mile-relay team together for a pep talk. There wasn't time and, besides, he seldom does that anyway. The last time he had called a team meeting it was for an entirely different reason. "He told some jokes, and then he got serious," recalls Paige. "First he said, 'Why don't you guys smile more?' Then he told us to please say 'yes' or 'yessir' instead of'yeah.' "
The relay team held a meeting of its own, at which there was a brief, silent prayer, and then won the race by half a second.
The four relay runners whooped and hollered, but in a subdued way. One by one they came over to Jumbo, shook his hand and said, "Congratulations, Mr. Elliott." Jumbo, perhaps wondering where to put yet another trophy, was outwardly subdued, too, but his eyes were damp.
Les Wallack, the Rutgers track coach, tells this story: "There was an incident last year during the indoor season, not long before that same NCAA meet. A quarter-miler—I won't mention his name or his school—beat Villanova in a relay, and as he crossed the finish line he made an Obscene gesture at Tim Dale, the Villanova anchor man. Tim said nothing, just walked away. Then at the IC4As it was reversed. Villanova beat the other team easily. After the race, the Villanova guys said nothing to the other kid. They hugged each other for a moment—you could see how happy they were—and then they just walked away. Wow, it gave me chills. What class."