Bump Elliott retired as the University of Iowa’s men’s athletics director in 1991, yet what he molded in his 21 years at that job remain as visible in Iowa City as the Old Capitol.
Compared to the present, Hawkeye athletics was a disheveled mom-and-pop operation before Elliott, who died Saturday at 94, settled into his job. By the time he retired, it was an operation taken seriously across the nation. Yet, he got things done without self-promotion, happier to be off to the side as much as possible and let Iowa’s coaches and athletes get the applause.
Kinnick Stadium had 60,000 seats when Elliott took the Iowa job, 70,000 when he retired. Carver-Hawkeye Arena was constructed. Lasting memories were made, by football teams off to Rose Bowls, by the last Iowa men’s basketball teams to win a Big Ten title and reach a Final Four, by a college wrestling program unlike any the sport had known.
By the way, Iowa Stadium was renamed Kinnick Stadium in 1972, early in Elliott’s watch.
You often hear successful leaders of organizations insist their success comes from hiring good people. That was Elliott. He turned Hawkeye athletics from an afterthought to something considerable because he hired the right coaches.
Iowa men’s basketball went from going unbeaten in the Big Ten in 1970 to instantly becoming mediocre after Ralph Miller left the Hawkeyes following that golden season to become Oregon State’s coach.
In 1974, Elliott hired Lute Olson. He wasn’t a name. He had been the head coach at Long Beach State for one season following four years at Long Beach Community College. The Hawkeyes won 19 or more games in seven of Olson’s nine seasons at Iowa and got them to five straight NCAA tournaments. They shared the 1979 Big Ten title, and reached the 1980 Final Four.
Hawkeye basketball turned something quite different. Long before there was a Big Ten Network, there was a Hawkeyes television network that originated during Elliott’s tenure. It covered the state and brought the team into everybody’s home. Because of that, Iowans felt they knew the Hawkeyes intimately, and grew much more attached to them.
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Elliott didn’t click on his first two football coaches, Frank Lauterbur and Bob Commings. Iowa’s streak of non-winning seasons extended all the way across the 1970s, a hard thing for former Michigan football head coach Elliott to accept. His third football head coach had to be the right one.
In December 1978, Elliott hired Hayden Fry from North Texas State. He was an unknown in Iowa, and Iowa was unknown to him. But immediately, the Texan talked about plowing up snakes and killing them, and did just that.
In his third season, Fry led Iowa to the Rose Bowl. What followed was a long string of winning seasons and bowl trips, which had been so foreign to Hawkeye fans. Iowa football was changed, and other than brief blips, has had a winning image since.
Fry, like Olson, is a Hall of Famer in his sport.
Elliott told Fry he would get what he needed in terms of facilities, fundraising and promotions, and left the football end of it to the man he hired. As bright a football mind as Elliott had, he knew you leave the coaching to your coaches.
Iowa had been good in wrestling, but never national-championship good. Elliott hired Gary Kurdelmeier to be the Hawkeyes’ head coach in 1972, and he raised the level. Iowa’s 1975 and 1976 teams won NCAA crowns.
The torch was passed to Dan Gable in 1977, and in 1978 Iowa began a run of nine consecutive national championships and 15 overall under the Olympic champion. It was one of the greatest dynasties in NCAA sports history, a genuine phenomenon.
Iowa football was in a bit of a lull when Kirk Ferentz took over in late 1998, but the blueprint was there. You could win here. Iowa men’s basketball has had ups and downs over the years since Olson departed for Arizona, but there were some very good times during the Tom Davis era. Elliott hired Davis from Stanford.
Carver opened in January 1983. In every season from 1982-83 through 1996-97, Iowa’s average home attendance was at least 14,586, and all 15,500 seats were sold for every game in Davis’ second, third and fourth seasons.
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For almost the entirety of his 28 years after retirement, you’d see Elliott at Hawkeyes athletic events. He was an Iowa fan who second-guessed no one and enjoyed supporting its teams.
Had the UI hired a less-capable athletic director than Elliott in 1972, only one logical conclusion could be drawn: Hawkeye sports almost surely wouldn’t have been nearly as good in the last half-century as they’ve been.
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