SI Vault
Rick Telander
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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
March 10, 1980

Nobody's Bigger Than Jumbo

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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

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."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9