IOWA CITY, Iowa — Fighting back tears, Matthias Farley remembered seeing the poem framed in the office, the minute he knew Bobby Elliott was his kind of guy: Out of the night that covers me …
Elliott, then Notre Dame’s safeties coach, noticed Farley’s eyes walking down William Ernest Henley’s stanzas, line by line.
“Invictus,” the coach said. “Have you heard it?”
“Yeah. It’s a great poem,” Farley replied. “I have the whole thing tattooed on my back.”
The Indianapolis Colts and former Fighting Irish safety laughed as he recalled that exchange from some five years earlier. As the hundreds on hand Saturday at Hancher Auditorium chuckled, Farley waited half a second, then delivered his old mentor’s punch line.
“He said, ‘You could’ve just memorized it.’”
Young or old, player or reporter, Elliott, the late Nebraska Cornhuskers defensive analyst and former Iowa Hawkeye, made a point to find common ground.
A bond. A bridge.
The longtime coach, who passed away last weekend in Iowa City at the age of 64 after a lengthy battle with cancer, was celebrated Saturday on the Iowa campus he called home as a player, graduate assistant, assistant coach and administrator.
After nearly 40 years in college football, Elliott cast a wide net of friends and colleagues, several of whom were in attendance for the public service: Kirk Ferentz of Iowa. Brian Kelly of Notre Dame. Bill Snyder of Kansas State. Bret Bielema of Arkansas. Nebraska defensive coordinator and former UConn coach Bob Diaco, who worked with Elliott at Notre Dame and had steered him to join the Nebraska staff.
One of the former Big Red assistant’s oldest friends, former Iowa State and North Texas coach Dan McCarney — whose time with Elliott dates to when the two were teens in Iowa City — delivered the longest eulogy of the celebration.
“No limits,” McCarney said of Elliott, who’d fought cancer successfully for nearly two decades despite several scares. “No ceilings.”
McCarney and Elliott played together for the Hawkeyes in the mid 1970s. They coached together on former coach Hayden Fry’s staff from 1987-1989 — singing Big Ten fight songs as they thanklessly spliced and edited film.
Here’s an incredible stat. Bobby Elliott was 16-2 as an assistant in Iowa Corn Cy-Hawk Series games: Iowa (11-1), Iowa State (5-1).
— Mike Green (@Beener1435) July 10, 2017
The pair reunited when McCarney was the coach of the rival Cyclones, and with Elliott as Iowa State’s associate head coach and secondary/special teams coach in 2000 and 2001, the program posted a 16-8 mark, won the 2000 Insight Bowl and were a controversial field-goal call away from knocking off Alabama in the 2001 Independence Bowl.
Iconic ex-Iowa coaches such as Tom Davis and Dan Gable were among Saturday’s celebrants, as were former players such as Hawkeyes alums William Inge and Bo Porter, both of whom spoke on behalf of their former coach.
Inge is currently the linebackers coach at Indiana; Porter, an All-Big Ten selection in football and baseball at Iowa, is a special assistant to Atlanta Braves general manager John Coppolella, having managed the Houston Astros in 2013-14.
“Coach Elliott,” Porter said, “was sent into my life by God.”
Former pupils such as Porter recalled looking up to Elliott like a father. Rev. Kyle Otterbein told celebrants that he’d remembered ex-Hawkeyes defensive lineman Aaron Kampman saying his old tutor was “not a transactional coach. He was a transformational coach.”
He was also a lion, having undergone a bone marrow transplant in 1999 for a rare blood disorder and a kidney transplant in 2013.
“[Elliott] had the heart of a fighter pilot,” Otterbein said. “He would not back down.”
No limits. No ceilings.