Michigan football has produced a lot of big name coaches and players, but one of the finest men who played and coached for Michigan deserves to be a little bigger.
At last week’s homecoming game, Michigan had planned to honor one of its great alums, a man named Chalmers Elliott – which might explain why he goes by “Bump.” He was an All-American football player and a Big Ten champion coach, but earned greater fame as the athletic director at Iowa, Michigan’s opponent this weekend. Pneumonia kept the 86-year old legend from making it, however, so I’m going to honor him today.
He was born in Detroit in 1925, and served in the Marines during World War II. He returned to star for Michigan as a halfback alongside his younger brother Pete, who played quarterback. Their offense was so dazzling, seven players could touch the ball on a single play. That earned them the nickname, the Mad Magicians, plus the national title in 1947 – the same year the conference named Bump Elliott the MVP.
Elliott came back to Michigan in 1959 as the head coach. To his players, he came off as an erudite, modest Midwesterner, who rarely swore or even yelled, and if you said you were hurt, that was enough for him. You could take the day off. Whenever I talk with his former players about him, they invariably say the same thing: “Bump Elliott was the consummate gentleman.”
But after ten years produced only one Big Ten title, Elliott happily left coaching in 1968 to become the associate athletic director. There, in that unassuming role, he might have performed his most noble task.
He helped hire his replacement, Bo Schembechler – which, believe it or not, first looked like it might have been a mistake. When Schembechler’s crew arrived with their wives sporting beehive hairdos and stiletto heels, some Michigan insiders took to calling them “The Ohio Mafia.” The players quickly learned the new guy yelled, swore, grabbed your facemask and literally kicked you in the ass. If you were merely hurt, not injured, but didn’t want to practice, you got left behind when the team plane took off.
Instead of turning his back on the new regime, however, Elliott embraced them, hosting parties for their families and introducing them to important people around town.
Elliott also left Schembechler eleven All-Americans, four of whom have been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. No Michigan team has produced more. As Bo told me, “Ol’ Bump had not left the cupboard bare!”
Those players had come to Michigan to play for the courtly Elliott, not this raving lunatic from Ohio. Not surprising, some tried to complain to their old coach. But the formerly friendly, inviting coach would have none of it. “I didn’t want to talk to them,” Elliott told me earlier this year. “That was Bo’s team now. There was no reason for me to be involved in that.”
Years later, Schembechler told me, “That was a great gift.”
Of course, Bo’s first team finished his first year in Ann Arbor by upsetting the top-ranked, defending national champion Ohio State Buckeyes – arguably the most important victory in Michigan’s long history.
The next year, Elliott became Iowa’s athletic director – by far the best they’ve ever had. He turned a sleeping giant into a juggernaut in football, basketball and even wrestling, where the Hawkeyes won 12 NCAA titles under his watch and starting packing the basketball arena for every match.
Bump Elliott earned just about every accolade a player and athletic director can, but the greatest might have been a simple, private tribute he received after Michigan’s upset over Ohio State in 1969. After the room quieted down, Bo asked Bump to come to the front. Bo said a few words of deep gratitude, then he handed Elliott the game ball. Everybody got choked up, including Bo and Bump, and more than a few of Elliott’s former players shed some tears.
Just a few months before Bo died, he told me, “I don’t remember when I felt better about anything I’ve done in my entire life.”
About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football,” currently on sale in bookstores. The book is currently No. 6 on the New York Times bestseller list.
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