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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However, foreign students from a variety of climes have seemed happy enough at Villanova. Ever since Guida and Ross met quarter-miler Jim Reardon at the 1948 Olympics and persuaded him to attend the school, Villanova has had a link with the best Irish runners. The Africans go to Villanova because of the school's international reputation.

"You know, I didn't make a single phone call to South Africa to get Maree," says Jumbo. "He was in the U.S. the summer after high school and his sponsor suggested Villanova to him, and the next thing I knew, he was here."

Once at Villanova, regardless of race or nationality, no runner can fail to respond to Elliott's genius for perfect timing and shrewd motivation. Nobody gets athletes up for meets like Jumbo.

As a freshman James was a frustrated intermediate hurdler. His steps were inconsistent and his concentration was poor. When he was a sophomore, Elliott had him training for the 600 as well as the hurdles, which only compounded his dissatisfaction. Then, just before that year's NCAA Indoor Championships, Jumbo approached him and said, "Forget it, champ. You're running the 440."

"He made me so happy I could have kissed his feet," recalls James. "I exploded from those blocks." Even though running from the outside lane, James shattered Theron Lewis' national record by nearly a second. His NCAA-record 47 flat, set 12 years ago, still stands.

Elliott also stresses discipline. Not the boot-camp discipline of a Woody Hayes, but the conservative discipline of a businessman. "They need some," Jumbo says, "for the years after school, when they have to submit to the whims of a boss."

"He likes you to have that nice clean 'American' look," says senior Keith Brown, a black sprinter from the Baltimore ghetto. "I like a 'stache-and-'burns look, but when I came in as a freshman, he said, 'Shave!' And no long socks or anything like that, either. I said, 'What!' But now I understand. He knows employers come to our meets, too, and he wants us to be respected as athletes and students."

When Jumbo is in doubt, he pauses and ponders. As he watched Delany set a world mile record 25 minutes after eating a hot dog. Jumbo realized there was a limit to his knowledge. "The great thing is, he knows there are things he doesn't know," is the way Paige puts it. That coachly humility may contribute to the fact that so many of Elliott's athletes continue to perform well once they are out of school.

"A lot of coaches want to be the guru," says Liquori. "But by the end of your sophomore or junior year Jumbo expects you to be able to coach yourself. And you can. European and Communist coaches can't believe that people like Eamonn and I actually coach ourselves."

There is a certain uniformity, a sedate, genteel quality about virtually all of Elliott's athletes, past and present, as though the navy blue and white Villanova track uniforms are the pupal stages of Brooks Brothers suits. In exciting times one could almost call it a dullness. But that would imply that the athletes lack intelligence or enthusiasm, which isn't true, either. Villanova runners can be wild and crazy guys when the mood strikes them. Paige, who lists "girls" as his favorite hobby, recalls that when he was being recruited, Jumbo had to leave for a while to bail some of his track men out of jail, where they had been immured for some minor offense.

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