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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The room, which invariably gets crowded once Jumbo arrives, now includes all three coaches, student manager Ray Engler (dispensing the mint candy that Jumbo calls "vitamins"), a secretary, several Villanova runners and two at-large students who have wandered in to use the phone.

"It's a leak," says Baker. "Relax, Jumbo, we'll get it fixed." Behind his hand he adds, "Next year."

The talk is loud and lively. Jumbo thrives on talk, in pubs, restaurants, arenas, everywhere. " Mr. Elliott will not go to lunch by himself," says Paige, his latest star. "If he hasn't found anybody to go with him by noon, he'll come over to campus and grab an athlete and say, 'Come on, let's eat.' "

Freshman sprinter Carlton Young, who is nursing a muscle pull, enters the chaos and, finding all the chairs taken, lies down on Jumbo's desk to talk with the coach about schoolwork. Considered one of the best young runners in the nation—he had a 9.4 100 and a 20.9 220 as a Philadelphia high school junior—Young is also a top student, with a first-semester 3.9 average in pre-med courses. Though it might appear otherwise, there is nothing disrespectful about Young's posture. It reflects expediency, informality and friendship, all of which Jumbo understands and advocates.

The office is chockablock with trophies and plaques—on window ledges, on the walls, under papers, piled up, buried, forgotten. Jumbo is asked if these comprise all the Villanova track trophies. "God, no," he cries in mock chagrin. "They're all over campus. I don't know how many of them there are. Too many." One recent night Jumbo returned home and was greeted by his 85-year-old uncle, Lou, who lives with Jumbo's family in nearby Haverford. "Here, Jim, look what I found in the basement," Lou said, holding up a tarnished metal plaque proclaiming Ron Delany to be a member of eight winning Penn Relays teams.

"Where the hell did you find that!" cried Jumbo, pretending to back up, as if Villanova's victory hardware were pursuing him, even perhaps multiplying like seedpods gone wild somewhere in his cellar.

Not for a minute, however, should anyone believe that Jumbo Elliott doesn't like to win. He loves to clown around. "They fired that Arizona football coach for slapping a kid's helmet," he says one day in the office to Pyrah, who is busy on the phone, "but can they fire you for slugging an assistant coach? For beating on this fat S.O.B.?" And Jumbo pummels Pyrah's midsection while the beleaguered assistant, still talking on the phone, struggles for calm. But his concern for his runners and their victories is not so lighthearted.

He prides himself on doing what's best for his boys and, more often than not, that means getting them home in first place. He'll fight for those wins. In 1970 Villanova won the NCAA Cross-country Championships by one point over Oregon after an irate Elliott used film to prove that one of his runners finished 62nd, not 67th, as the officials had ruled. Near the end of the 1978 IC4A Outdoor Championships, Jumbo realized that Villanova could win the meet if his runners finished 1-2-3-4 in the 1,500 (an unprecedented feat), finished first in the 5,000, and then won the 4 x 400 relay, the final event. Jumbo made some lineup changes, explained the situation to his boys, and Villanova beat Maryland 99-98 for the title.

Believing that hard work followed by just reward builds character, Elliott worries now about his boys not being able to participate in the 1980 Olympics. He figures he has a dozen former or current athletes who could qualify for the Moscow Games. "But it hasn't changed anything for me, really," Jumbo adds. "I'll still try to get the boys in the best shape I can."

This approach is shared, as one would expect, by Elliott's athletes. "It's not going to kill me if the United States doesn't compete," says Paige. "There are a lot of meets in Europe after the Olympics and everybody will be at those. If you can beat an Olympic medalist then, well, that's not too bad."

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