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
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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

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Finally, in 1969, the university, perhaps out of embarrassment at having what was probably the lowest-paid major-power track coach in the nation, demanded that Elliott accept a salary of $10,000. The move was made largely to set a precedent. "In case," as Jumbo puts it, "they might have to hire another coach after I'm gone."

But Elliott did not need, or particularly want, the extra cash. As an officer of the Villanova Development Council he promptly gave all (much more than all, is the rumor) of the raise back to the school. "If I ever had to quit coaching it would tear my heart out," he says. "I like people. I love track men. Obviously, I didn't get into it for the money."

It is this generosity toward his alma mater that annoys some of the other coaches. "The man has a name like Lombardi in football," groans Frank Sevigne, the track coach at the University of Nebraska. "But what's really so irritating is that Jumbo is that successful, and it's only part time."

Jumbo walks down the hall of the aging Villanova field house, one of those drafty brick and tile structures that undoubtedly looked modern back when basketball players wore high-tops and the running one-hander was considered radical. Clad in a three-piece business suit, white shirt, dark tie and black wingtips, he is himself a throwback to another, less jivey era. Medallions, flowered disco shirts and leisure suits will remain the province of other, hipper coaches. Elliott, the old-school Irish Catholic, believes in dignity as he knows it. "Do you remember how John Wooden used to coach at UCLA?" he asks. "Every now and then he'd stand up, and once or twice he'd say something. I understand that. These new coaches—particularly in basketball—my God, they're madmen."

At times—such as when he is standing still, deep in thought—Jumbo looks older than he is, somewhat pale and fragile. But his speedy, long-limbed gait is an indication that youth still lurks within. Split high, like a good hurdler or quarter-miler (he ran a 47.4 in 1935 and probably would have made the 1936 Olympic team except for an injury), the 5'11", 160-pound Elliott claims it is "the working with the lads" that keeps him young. "I know men in their 60s who are so old I don't even want to be around them," he says. For the last decade or so recruiters from other colleges have warned high school athletes that if they went to Villanova they would end up running for a different coach, the implication being that Elliott was due for retirement. But Father Driscoll has said Jumbo can coach "as long as he wants."

"Those retirement stories," says Jumbo, shrugging. "I've heard them every spring for 20 years. All I can say is, retire to what—a hole in the ground?"

Even the crowded, dingy confines of the field house (it is not a field house in the true sense of the word since there is no indoor track or field area; Villanova's wooden "indoor" track is outside) seem to put life into Elliott's stride. "People jog all through this building," he says. "The other day I was coming out of the men's room and some great big guy hit me and knocked me flying. This has to be the best-used facility in the world."

He says this with amusement and pride. For years he has asked the university for a new track, perhaps even a real locker room (the dressing room is also a hallway), but it's not imperative that he get them. The contrast between Villanova's archaic athletic facilities and the success of his teams appeals to Jumbo's sense of humor and his up-by-the-bootstraps philosophy. Visitors usually ask what his teams do when snow blankets the "indoor" track. "We just give the boys shovels and put them to work," he replies. "It's good for them."

In his office, which he shares with two assistant coaches, Jack Pyrah and Elliott Baker, Jumbo stretches out and puts his feet up on his desk. Pyrah and Baker are also part-time coaches, having full-time jobs elsewhere—Pyrah with the university, Baker in the Philadelphia school system. Jumbo looks over his head to where a large brown stain has discolored the ceiling. He stares at it a while, pondering its significance.

"What's that?" he asks.

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