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"Yeah! Good!" cries Jumbo as the dark figure runs on.
People in the track world are always asking for the secret of Elliott's coaching success. In fact, his training concepts are simple and mundane—too basic for those who desire an exotic formula. "Run, eat, sleep," says Jumbo. Liquori says, "At clinics, people can't believe he's being truthful. But he is."
Elliott doesn't care for fancy, "scientific" approaches to the sport. "I don't measure lung capacity or any of that stuff," he says. "What can I do about it? The only special technique I have is my own personal psychology. I stress the efficient operation of body movement, and I have my runners do a lot of repeat work—repeat quarters or 220s or halves. But each person is different. If you have a runner as naturally gifted as, say, that hurdler, Nehemiah, the way you coach him is to not foul him up. Mostly you try to keep the boys' frames of mind up."
Jumbo's vast experience—the fact that he has seen it all—comes into play here. He knows when to push a runner and when to lay off. This is the psych business, closing the sale. "A typical coach will say, 'Give me 15 repeat quarters in 60 seconds,' " says Liquori. "And of course nobody can do it, so afterward you feel down. Jumbo, on the other hand, will say, 'O.K., we're doing 10 quarters in 60 today.' Everybody does it and they say, 'Hey, let's do more.' Jumbo will say, 'No, go on in,' but maybe one day he'll say, 'O.K., give me two more,' and everybody will do those two and go in feeling great, like world-beaters. He'll do things like that, sacrifice a litle physical conditioning for mental conditioning."
One thing Elliott tries not to do is to get greedy, push runners into places where they don't belong. For two years he had Mark Belger, a 1978 graduate, and Paige on his team at the same time. Both were world-class half-milers, yet he never ran them head to head. "Why force the issue?" he says, knowing that a loss by either one might have been ruinous to that runner's development.
"It's like my business," says Jumbo. "Sometimes I'll talk to a manager who isn't being straight with me, who says yes, definitely, he wants to buy one of our tractors. Then I'll go back to finish the deal, and he says he went out and bought a Caterpillar instead. I don't force the issue. I keep myself from getting mad. I say, 'I hope it works out real well for you.' You have to think about the long run."
"The thing I remember most about Jumbo's practices is that they were a lot of fun," says Dwyer, who as a rival coach is still one of Elliott's good friends. "Jumbo used to stutter a little, and in practice I'd be on my way to a 60-second lap in the mile and he'd want me to slow down or sprint and he'd call out, 'Si-si-si....' I'd stop and say, 'Si-si-si what?' And then he'd chase me around the track. You need light moments like that, because running itself requires so much discipline."
Elliott has always understood the need for occasional levity, in life as well as running. One of his catch phrases is "stop and smell the roses." He once advised the intense Liquori to spend 20 minutes a day smiling into a mirror.
Of course, a major reason for Elliott's success is the sheer amount of rare talent he has brought to Villanova, getting the great ones and letting them help each other. "Practices were always like races," recalls James. Elliott admits that track recruiting is simple: "You just look for the best times." For a man of Jumbo's stature, getting the blue-chippers to enroll is a breeze, too. "Well, let me say that it's much easier than selling a quarter-million-dollar truck to a man who doesn't want one," he says.
In the last two decades, Elliott remembers only one Villanova track man flunking out, and none has transferred to another school. He doesn't try to recruit athletes from the South or the West because he knows they won't enjoy the Pennsylvania winters. "I want my runners to be happy," he says.