When James (Jumbo) Elliott, Villanova's splendid track coach, died of a heart attack on March 22, 1981, he left a singular void in the world of sport. Like Red Smith, who died less than a year later, Elliott had the faculty of making people who knew him only slightly feel that he was a close friend. He was an extremely successful coach, and he was just as remarkable a personality. You felt good when you saw him, and you looked forward to the next time. At indoor meets this winter, the first without Elliott in more than 35 years, his absence was particularly noticeable.
Now a delightful biography has come along to ease the sense of loss—Jumbo Elliott: Maker of Milers, Maker of Men (St. Martin's Press, $13.95). It is rather pretentiously titled, and now and then it gets a bit heavy with sentimentality, but that doesn't matter. Elliott is alive in its pages, and you feel again his grinning, small-boy impudence, his pleasant needling, his seriousness and dedication, his concern for his athletes, his restless interest in the business of living, his joy in so many things. The book was written by Dr. Theodore J. Berry, a friend of Elliott's since boyhood and a frequent medical consultant to the Villanova track team. And if the doctor's prose falls short of Red Smith's, he nonetheless turns an anecdote with the best of them, catches Jumbo's speech and the flavor of his personality and renders a fine, rounded portrait. The book was begun well before Elliott's death and was supposed to be a joint project. In fact, Elliott and Berry are listed as co-authors, although, except for a few pages of Elliott monologues on coaching, it is a book about Jumbo, not by him.
Elliott was a poor boy from an Irish section of Philadelphia who won an athletic scholarship to Villanova during the Depression. He was a star quarter-miler and a crack golfer (a sport he had learned as a caddie). By 1933, Depression economics and the departure of coaches from the campus left Elliott, still an undergraduate, the de facto mentor of both the track and golf teams. He continued as golf coach for the next 30 years and as track coach for the rest of his life. Both were labors of love; his salary was nominal. He earned his living off campus as a salesman, eventually for a company that made heavy construction equipment. In time he became owner of the company and made a fortune, all the while continuing to turn out championship track teams at Villanova.
There are a lot of rewarding stories about him in this rambling book. One of the best gives an insight into the complex relationship he had with his athletes: He was their unquestioned leader while at the same time often an equal, and thus subject to exasperated complaints. Jumbo was famous for shifting his relay personnel around, pulling a man out of this team and putting him on that one, or for having men enter events they previously hadn't specialized in. (At the 1957 indoor IC4A championships he had his great miler Ron Delany pass up his pet event and try instead for a unique double victory at 1,000 yards and two miles; Delany pulled it off and then did it again in 1958.) At the Penn Relays, Elliott suddenly told Browning Ross, an excellent distance runner and one of the first of Elliott's many Olympians, that he would be running the anchor leg for Villanova's two-mile relay team. "Me?" Ross said, amazed, adding to himself, "I hope the other three guys give me a helluva big lead." They did, and when Ross took the baton he had a comfortable 15-yard margin. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to hold off a superior half-miler running anchor against him, and he lost in the stretch. Gulping for air after the race, Ross felt terrible. "I went over several excuses in my mind, different ways I could tell Jumbo how sorry I was because I blew the big lead," Ross said. "Nothing I could think of sounded right, but I had to say something. I could see Jumbo watching...and he didn't look at all happy. When I got closer, Jumbo stood up and waited for me. The words stuck in my throat and all I could get out was a frustrated 'Jesus Christ, Jumbo!'
April 12, 1982
"Jumbo always stuttered when he got upset, and he was pretty upset at that point. He poked a bony finger into the middle of my aching chest and said, Th-th-that's who I'm gonna have run anchor for us n-n-next year!' "