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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This raw, wintry day James Francis (Jumbo) Elliott, 64, the Philadelphia millionaire, drives rather than walks through the yard of Elliott and Frantz, Inc. heavy-equipment sales company. A light snow has turned the back lot into a quagmire. "We plan to have it repaved next summer," Jumbo says apologetically. Elliott's car creeps past the monsters that are his stock-in-trade: fluorescent-green, 35-ton Euclid trucks, cherry-red Drott cranes, taxicab-yellow Fiat-Allis loaders—dense, inert vehicles nesting in the ooze. "The really big ones come on semis and are assembled here," says Jumbo. "Some of the tires alone are 10 feet high."

Elliott walks into his office, sits down at the desk and hums as he rubber-stamps his name on $26,000 worth of payroll checks. He comes in for only a few hours a day now, and signing checks is one of his duties. Nowadays the business runs largely on its own momentum, but that wasn't always the case. "God, no," says Jumbo, a gentleman in all things, but one who uses a dash of blasphemy for effect. Fifty years ago he was a stock boy in a grocery store in Philadelphia's Shanty-town; 35 years ago he was a foreman of a small construction company; 25 years ago he was a salesman for the company; later he became a partner in it; and eight years ago he bought out his partner. Now there are Elliott and Frantz franchises in three states, with 140 employees and annual sales of $25 million.

On the walls of Elliott's office are photographs of athletes running and a painting of a great, somber, bearded man—God, obviously—peering out of the clouds and obviously displeased as a golfer moves his ball from behind a bush. Golf is one of Jumbo's passions. In 1934 and '35 he was captain of Villanova University's golf team. He was undefeated in his intercollegiate career, and he was urged to join the pro tour after graduation. Now Elliott belongs to several country clubs around Philadelphia and owns a condominium near the 13th hole of the Seminole golf course in Juno Beach, Fla.

Alean, almost gaunt man with a fleshy face that seems meant for a heavier frame, Jumbo is reputed to have a mighty tee shot still. "A friend of mine always said he'd bet I could outdrive anybody else who had wrists as skinny as mine," he says. Jumbo holds out his wrists and they are indeed narrow, delicate, decidedly un-Jumbo-like. (The "Jumbo" handle was not acquired for anatomical reasons. It was picked up in the 1930s; a man named Jumbo Jim Elliott pitched for the Phillies then. "Since I was a Jim Elliott, too, I got the name and it stuck," he says.)

Jumbo's eldest son, James Elliott Jr., 33, vice-president/general manager of Elliott and Frantz, enters the office and pulls a pitching wedge from the bag of clubs behind his father's desk. Another son, Tom, 29, also works at Elliott and Frantz, as a vice-president. As James Jr. practices his backswing, he and his father discuss the political problems in Afghanistan and Iran. World affairs are of more than passing interest to the Elliotts these days—one of their sales agents in Iran disappeared for a while during the revolution there. Upon resurfacing, the agent informed the company that $50,000 worth of their tractor parts were in the hands of the new government.

"Are we going to get caught on that?" Jumbo asks now.

"I already wrote it off," says Jim Jr., "but I've heard we might eventually get paid by some West German bank. You don't mind if we get it in deutschmarks, do you, Dad?"

Jumbo chuckles. Such relatively small amounts of money are not terribly important to him at this stage in his career.

It is nearly three o'clock now and Jumbo is finishing work for the day. He gets into his Cadillac to drive the short distance to Villanova, the small (enrollment 6,075), private, Catholic Church-affiliated university from which he graduated 45 years ago. It is at Villanova, on Philadelphia's fashionable Main Line, that Elliott engages in what has been his "hobby" for four and a half decades. Like a comic book hero emerging from a phone booth, Jumbo, the successful businessman, family man, amateur golfer and lifetime Philadelphian, steps out of his car in the school's parking lot and takes on a new identity—that of the most successful collegiate track coach in U.S. history.

Indeed, if coaching achievement were measured in business terms, Jumbo Elliott would be no mere millionaire, but a Rockefeller, a Howard Hughes. In the last 25 years his Villanova track and cross-country teams have won almost 50 major championships, indoors and out: eight NCAAs, three AAUs, one USTFF and 38 IC4As (the 105-member Eastern track association). During his tenure 300 Villanova athletes have won individual or relay championships at IC4A meets, 74 have won them at the NCAAs, 63 at the AAUs. Last spring Villanova won its 71st relay title since 1955 at the prestigious Penn Relays, far outdistancing the host team, the University of Pennsylvania, as the alltime leader.

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